Delicatessen (1991)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Alien Movies Rated and Ranked

Alien (1979)

An exquisitely fucked up mutation of the Roger Corman creature feature.  So many dirt-cheap horrors in its wake have aimed for its exact quietly eerie mood and inspired only frustrated boredom in the attempt.  Here, every scare is a sharp knife to the brain no matter how familiar you are with what’s coming.  I still can’t look directly at Giger’s goopy sex monster without shivering in pure disgust all these sequels & knockoffs later.  Like the original Terminator, it’s got a reputation of having been surpassed by its louder, better-funded spawn, but I don’t believe that’s true for a second.

Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Far from the scariest entry in the franchise, but easily the most fun.  The whole thing plays like a live-action cartoon, and its blasphemous disinterest in series lore is a refreshing blast of fresh air after watching Fincher take everything so relentlessly serious in its predecessor.  Great creature gags, some endearingly goofy character work, and a wonderfully imaginative eye from Jeunet, as always.  Big fan.

Prometheus (2012)

Fantastic mix of ludicrous retro sci-fi pulp & elegant visual artistry.  I am forever in love with the idea of humans asking Big, Important philosophical questions about our origins & purpose to literal gods and receiving only brutal, wordless violence in response.  Still kicking myself for allowing the negative word-of-mouth to talk me out of seeing it in 3D on the big screen when I had the chance.

Aliens (1986)

I’ll always have some philosophical hang-ups with the way Cameron simplifies & normalizes the subliminal nightmare fuel of the first Alien movie for much more familiar blockbuster entertainment.  It’s still great as a standalone action movie though!  Stan Winston’s wizardly creature effects are especially praiseworthy, affording the xenomorphs an exciting feeling of agility that matches the increased momentum of the shoot-em-up action sequences.  I’ll never buy into the myth that this & T2 are somehow superior to their predecessors just because of their slicker production values, and the Director’s Cut’s sprawling 154min runtime is a crime against all reason & good taste.  And yet pushing back against its hyperbolic reputation comes across as contrarian blasphemy, when the truth is it’s just a solidly entertaining popcorn movie and that’s a pleasure in itself.

AvP: Requiem (2007)

This is widely understood to be the worst Alien film, but I thoroughly enjoy it as dumb-fun teen horror. If nothing else, it’s impressively efficient and Mean. The gore gags are plentiful & cruel, maintaining a consistently entertaining rhythm of nasty, amoral kills. It’s like a modern throwback to the Roger Corman creature feature, with a suburban-invasion angle that brings some much-needed novelty to two once-great franchises that were running out of steam. I honestly believe that if it featured warring alien creatures that weren’t associated with pre-existing series, it wouldn’t be nearly as reviled. It probably wouldn’t be remembered at all, though, so maybe it’s for the best that it ruffled horror-nerd feathers.

Alien Covenant (2017)

Instead of aiming for the arty pulp of Prometheus, Covenant drags the Alien series’ newfound philosophical themes back down to the level of a body-count slasher.  This prequel/sequel is much more of a paint-by-numbers space horror genre picture than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a quality that ruins its premise.  Through horrific cruelty, striking production design, and the strangest villainous performance to hit a mainstream movie in years (it really should be retitled Michael Fassbender: Sex Robot), this easily gets by as a memorably entertaining entry in its series. If it could be considered middling, it’s only because the Alien franchise has maintained a better hit-to-miss ratio than seemingly any other decades-old horror brand has eight films into its catalog.

Alien³ (1992)

Really pushes the limits of the dictum “There’s no such thing as a bad Alien movie.”  Even the revised Assembly Cut is an excessively dour bore, and the only thing that breathes any life into the damned thing is the continued instinctive terror of Giger’s creature designs (though the green sheen of the early-90s CGI isn’t doing that aesthetic any favors).  Its only illuminating accomplishment is helping make sense why Jeunet was hired for the next entry in the series, as it often looks & feels like one of his steampunk grotesqueries with all of the Fun & Whimsy surgically removed. Otherwise, it just coasts on the series’ former glories.

AvP: Alien vs Predator (2004)

Maybe the most frustrating movie in the Alienverse for being deliriously stupid fun for its final 20 minutes or so, but not worth the effort it takes to get there.  The restorative praise for it in Horror Noire had me hoping for a different reaction than I had in the theater, but this viewing was mostly a repeat: bored out of my skull for the first hour and then cheering on its climactic team-up sequence as if I were watching the creature-feature Super Bowl.  Appropriately, that’s also a pretty accurate summation of Paul WS Anderson’s entire career; there’s just enough unhinged, goofball fun to keep your rooting for him even though he fumbles the ball every single game.

-Brandon Ledet

Romantic Pranks in Parisian Twee

In our initial conversation about our current Movie of the Month, the maniacal twee romcom Love Me If You Dare, CC suggested that one of the reasons she had such a strong affinity for it as a teen is that she happened to catch it before she saw Amélie. That stipulation is a reasonable one to note if you consider the films in tandem. Arriving two years before Love Me If You Dare and achieving much more visible international acclaim (including five Oscar nominations), Amélie provided a blueprint for much of the latter film’s basic quirks & structure. An ungenerous reading of their parallels could even define Love Me If You Dare as a direct Amélie rip-off, given the alarming overlap of their broader details: the intense absinthe-green color correction, the whimsical fairy tale romance that starts in childhood, the tragically deceased mother lost in that childhood, the emotionally distanced father who miserably stayed behind, the female leads’ waitressing jobs at Parisian cafes, etc. Even the coincidence of these overlaps could be dismissed as being the basic building blocks of early-aughts French twee (an aesthetic partly established by Amélie director Jean-Pierre Juenet in general, not just in that picture in particular). What really links Love Me If You Dare to Amélie, though, is the two films’ shared premises of profiling chaotic, prankish adults who hide their romantic feelings for each other behind a childish game that goes on for far too long. However, watching the two films back to back, I do believe Love Me If You Dare manages to justify its own existence beyond merely echoing the accomplishments of Amélie before it. Only, it does so by reimagining a version of Amelie where the central couple aren’t good natured pranksters, but rather total monsters whose romantic games endanger the world around them.

In Love Me If You Dare, the young couple at the center avoid expressing their romantic vulnerabilities for each other by instead focusing on The Game: a lifelong competition of one-upmanship where they trade a cookie tin back & forth that gives them authority to issue an escalating set of dares to each other. As they get older, the dares become increasingly destructive to the point of being lethal, a trajectory that challenges the most extreme boundaries of the romcom genre. The titular character of Amélie similarly hides her feelings for a mysterious beau through a prankish game of one-upmanship; the difference is that her version of mischief is largely harmless to the other citizens of Paris. The young lovers of Juenet’s film play their flirtation as a quiet, mostly private game involving trading discarded photobooth strips left around the city by strangers instead of directly talking to each other. Amélie herself does pull pranks on other, unsuspecting people outside this game – but mostly to their benefit. She helps her father break out of his hermetic life by sending him traveling photos featuring his stolen garden gnome in exotic locales. She helps lonely, elderly people outside her family rediscover their connection to larger social worlds by unearthing precious objects from their past: lost childhood relics; forged letters from dead lovers; homemade VHS montages of found-footage cinema; etc. She even plays matchmaker for an unlikely couple in her café, extending a kindness to others that she won’t afford to herself. The most harmful her pranks get is in her gradual, repeated gaslighting of one local merchant – swapping his shoes for smaller sizes, salting his whiskey, replacing his toothpaste with foot cream – as righteous retribution for his abuses towards his disabled employee. The juvenile pranksters of Love Me If You Dare are so obsessed with each other & themselves that they cause widespread, horrific damage to the world around them without hardly taking notice. By contrast, Amélie spends too little time focusing on herself and instead pranks the outside world with absurdist kindness. These are directly opposed paradigms, making for two drastically different tones – no matter the overlap in details.

Even though Love Me If You Dare & Amélie overlap in a significant portion of their broader details, the specificity of Amélie’s more minuscule, microscopic touches are so manicured & specific that they could never be copied outside a direct remake. The film has a fetish for specificity, zooming in on mundane human experiences like the indent lines pillows leave on faces, the feeling of plunging fingers into cool sacks of grain, and the nervous release of cracking knuckles & popping bubble wrap. By contrast, Love Me If You Dare revels in the broad & the external, following a bombastic, ill-advised relationship’s exponentially violent escalation to the point where it feels like the entire world might end if no one puts a stop to it in time. It’s clear to me, then, that Amélie is the superior film of the pair, whether or not it’s the one you happen to catch first. There’s a very peculiar, detailed, dark-magic energy to its fairy tale rhythms that’s enduringly endearing, trafficking in a hyper-specific, hermetic world that still feels unique & intimate no matter how often it has been echoed in its twee-tinged decedents. Love Me If You Dare’s chaotic misanthropy doesn’t allow for such intimacy, but rather terrorizes its audience by perverting the twee romcom template into something cruel & unpredictable. It’s less a photocopy of Amélie than it is a darkest timeline inversion of that film’s romantic-pranks premise into something deeply sinister. These two films use their respective love-game antics to show what it’s like when twee French whimsy is used for Good vs. when it’s used for Evil. They may exist in the same color-saturated, overly-manicured, early-aughts Paris, but their philosophical worldviews are polar opposites, making for two drastically different experiences.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the sinister twee romance Love Me If You Dare (2003), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison to the violent attractions of Heavenly Creatures (1993).

-Brandon Ledet