One of my most rewarding viewing projects for the website this year was a chronological rewatch of the Alien series. Not only did it help justify an ancient purchase of a Blu-Ray boxset I acquired years before I even owned a Blu-Ray player, but it also helped solidify the Alien saga as one of the very best horror franchises around. There is no such thing as a bad Alien movie. Their 40+ years of pop-media terror has spanned from philosophical reflections on the origins of humanity to dumb-as-rocks creature feature blockbusters – each worthwhile in their own special fucked up way, if not only for boasting one of the most continually upsetting monster designs in the Classic Horror canon. While my appreciation for the series as a whole grew tremendously during that binge, I can’t say many of the individual movies rose or fell in my personal rankings or esteem. There were only two exceptions: the dumb-fun teen horror AvP: Requiem and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s live-action cartoon Alien: Resurrection, both of which are far more fun & imaginative than uptight horror nerds are willing to give them credit for. I’d even place Resurrection as the second-best film of the franchise (and I did!), bested only by the subliminal nightmare fuel of Ridley Scott’s original.
The truth is I’m always a sucker for Jeunet’s grimy aesthetics & cutesy twee bullshit. Even when he deviated into the tropes & trappings of a traditional war epic—a genre that usually bores me to sleep—with A Very Long Engagement, I still greedily ate it up with a spoon. Obviously, though, it’s when Jeunet mucks about with horror & sci-fi genre templates that I’m especially hopeless to his sepia tone charms. To that end, I had a lot of fun returning to his debut feature, Delicatessen, after falling back in love with Alien: Resurrection all over again. My tastes are basic enough that the chaotic twee romcom Amélie remains my favorite Jeunet film overall, but if he only made cannibal comedies (Delicatessen), big-budget creature features (Resurrection), and dystopian steampunk sci-fi (City of Lost Children), I’d be forever chuffed. With Delicatessen, Jeunet premiered as an already fully-formed auteur, indulging in the exact improbably whimsical romances, monochromatic fantasyscapes, and vaudevillian comedy traditions that would carry throughout his career. He just had to squeeze them all into a guaranteed-to-be-financed genre template, the same way he later had to adapt those same quirks to the American blockbuster template in Alien: Resurrection. It’s hilarious in both cases how little of his personality he’s willing to give up to satisfy the expectations of the genres he’s working within, making for the exact kind of high-style, self-indulgent filmmaking I always love to see in horror.
Delicatessen is a (non-musical) Sweeney Todd-style comedy about an apartment building full of starving weirdos who turn to cannibalism as a desperate response to Post-War rationing. Jeunet’s eternal muse Dominique Pinon arrives as the building’s new super, unaware that the butcher/landlord plans to kill him to replenish the residents’ meat supply as soon as he’s done fixing up the squeaks & leaks and repainting the ceilings. A heavy dust storm of war-ravaged buildings drapes the sky outside the apartments, so that everyone feels trapped inside, living in an exponentially quirky microcosm. That dusty coating antiques the film’s setting with the same Universal Horror & German Expressionist throwback aesthetics you’ll see in other traditionalist weirdos’ films like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man or Guy Maddin’s everything. For the most part, though, Jeunet is not especially interested in the terror or tension of old-school horror, just the surrealist headspace those traditions tap into. People may be chopped up & eaten by a small-minded, isolated community of weirdos, but this is hardly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most of the runtime is eaten up by twee-as-fuck dalliances like Pinon’s ill-advised romance with the butcher’s daughter, or their depressed neighbor’s Rube Goldberg suicide contraptions, or the last minute heist plot meant to sneak Pinon out of the building unchewed. It looks grim & sinister at all times, but it’s all very silly & cute.
The one stroke of pure genius in Delicatessen is Jeunet’s casting of Dominique Pinon as a former circus clown, complete with black & white television broadcasts of his act with his former partner, a chimpanzee named Mr. Livingstone. The image of Pinon’s wonderfully bizarre face slathered in vintage clown makeup is initially terrifying, fitting firmly in the film’s old-school horror traditionalism. At the same time, Jeunet only uses that imagery as excuse to launch into the twee whimsy that interests him as a storyteller – including romantic sequences of Pinon wooing his neighborly crush with vaudevillian clown routines, sentimental heartbreak over the loss of Mr. Livingstone, and the eerie theremin-like sounds of Pinon playing a musical saw. I always appreciate when a horror film manages to be genuinely scary, but that’s not usually what I’m looking for in the genre. What I most love about horror is that it’s one of the only mainstream cinematic spaces left where creators are allowed to indulge in pure personal obsession & id with no regard for sensibility or logic. Judging by Delicatessen & Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet doesn’t seem especially interested in the psychological terror or cathartic violence of horror, but rather takes advantage of the freedom the genre’s commercial viability affords him as a total weirdo with his own pet obsessions & personal quirks audiences & financiers won’t put up with in other contexts. I applaud him for it.