By Steven Moore
Visions of the post-apocalypse reveal a lot about a culture, what it sees as indispensable to civilization, and what it cherishes. The American vision of the post-apocalypse often involves the loss of safety and convenience, and life becomes a hard toil of survival and violence where power is consolidated into an oligarchy. American visions of post-apocalypse, including Logan’s Run and The Book of Eli, reveal that they prize their comforts and their freedom above all else. In short, Americans want nothing more than a comfortable, easy life. The post-apocalypse from the French perspective does not concern itself with comfort or freedom, beyond necessity. The terror of the post-apocalypse is the opportunity for the nouveau riche to control the poor. The resurrection of a great class divide and economic disenfranchisement defines the end of civilization.
Delicatessen (1991), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first feature film, only hints at the possible causes of the Apocalypse, suggesting a war with artificial intelligence that has nearly destroyed the earth’s ability to grow plants. Presumably, there are no more fossil fuels, because cars are pushed by servants; and although the air is breathable, it reminds me suspiciously of Eliot’s yellow fog that represents the pollution of London. The film focuses on a small group of people living in an apartment building with a butcher shop at the ground floor. All around lie the ruins of what was once a suburban neighborhood. While the wide shots reveal that this is all that is left of the neighborhood, life goes on pretty much as normal. The people watch TV, play music, and sit around being French. When the butcher asks the postal officer about the city, he replies, “Awful, they are eating each other.” The suggestion is that the entire world has turned to cannibalism because “there are no more rats,” and this little building is the last bastion of decency.
Of course, some compromises must be made. To keep the community from turning on one another, the butcher lures unsuspecting travelers, murders them, and sells their meat to residents. However, he uses his advantage for personal gain. Because grain is so scarce, it has become the primary form of currency. Between selling food to the residents and collecting rent, he has become wealthy beyond necessity. He sits in his basement, counting his many sacks of grain, while the people living above him starve. He buys candy, an almost unheard-of novelty, for his daughter, while children in the next room are being fed boots.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a French film if it did not view the tragedy and horror of the situation through the eyes of comedy. Juenet establishes the butcher’s dominance over the small society through a sex scene in which all of the residents are performing whatever tasks they are assigned to the rhythm of his sexual encounter. They cannot stop until he has *ahem* finished. The butcher dominates the community absolutely, so that no one can break free of his rhythm despite ruining a bike tire, breaking strings on a cello, or working faster than humanly possible.
The film makes a point to turn the comical into horror and horror into comedy. The butcher mistakenly attacks one of the residents, cutting off his leg, then proceeds to kill an elderly woman for the meat. Juenet somehow manages to make this and the following scene in which the elderly woman’s daughter weeps over the meat she has just received from the butcher comical. However, a nightmare sequence involving a monkey and a clown, two easy comedic props, is one of the most horrifying dream sequences I have ever seen. (I’m afraid I will be seeing them in my own dreams.)
The characters in Delicatessen are what make the film. Quirky, eccentric, and unbelievably French, they are both lovable and despicable. One woman continually tries and fails to kill herself because of voices coming from the pipes. The Troglodytes, a bumbling underground group of vegetarians who have a sense of Robin Hood about them, attempt to steal the grain and save anyone in danger. The protagonist, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who can’t face his previous life in the circus without his monkey by his side, is oblivious the the decay and danger around him, but is remarkably kind.
The frantic pace and sometimes farcical moments create an atmosphere where I, as the viewer, am barely hanging on to what is happening but am enjoying the ride. I could tell that this film was poorly translated, and that may have had something to do with the sense of confusion. There were many moments where the action was incomprehensible, but I felt like I was butting up against a language barrier and not a plot or directing deficiency. The askew cinematography and tonal juxtaposition work together to create an intentional disorientation, but the mistranslations sometimes add one too many confusing elements.
While the film demonizes the sole man taking advantage of a situation when he could be solving a problem, it does reflect that nobody intends to be evil, that circumstance or ignorance makes us evil. Louison claims early on that, “Nobody is entirely evil: it’s that circumstances that make them evil [sic], or they don’t know they are doing evil.” Even the butcher asks his mistress whether he might have been a good man if the world was different. We all have the potential for evil given the right circumstances or lack of understanding. Like in A Boy and His Dog, when a person is fighting for survival and has never been taught compassion or selflessness, the natural course is to work solely for personal gain. Without society, life is nasty, brutish, and short. And then you end up dinner.