Lionsgate // 1991 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // September 27th, 2010
This is a job for the Australian!
The television I had in my room growing up was very old, but in its day, was quite hi-tech. One day, while fiddling with the arcanely-named buttons and dials, I discovered that I could unscramble all of the pay stations. The image had perfect clarity, but the trade off was no color. So I watched a lot of color films in black-and-white, but none more so than Delicatessen, in heavy rotation on Cinemax's arthouse programming. I viewed it an obscene number of times, but until now, only once in color. In my head, the film will always be in shades of gray, which makes all the more surprising -- and beautiful -- to see it in its proper form, and on Blu-ray, no less.
M. Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, The Corsican Brothers) runs a very successful delicatessen and apartment building in a post-apocalyptic France. How do his eccentric residents stay so healthy when everyone else is starving? Simple, he keeps a room reserved for a replaceable handyman to fatten, butcher, and serve up to his permanent tenants at a tidy profit.
Louison (Dominique Pinon, Dante 01), a former circus performer, arrives inquiring about the job and moves in without knowing the danger he faces. Luckily, Clapet's daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac, Au petit Marguery) falls for him and tries to save him. If she and Louison are to be together, she must enlist the help of Les Troglodistes, a vegetarian resistance group surviving in the sewers under the streets.
Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (A Very Long Engagement) may have enjoyed more international acclaim as a solo artist, but his art has suffered greatly since ending his working relationship with Marc Caro (The City of Lost Children). In their two-film collaboration, Jeunet handled the story while Caro constructed the look. Jeunet's strong sense of whimsy mixed perfectly with Caro's obsession with dark fantasy for a pair of truly unique pictures that were greater than the sum of their parts. Alone, Jeunet gives me a very annoying toothache; together with Cano, he made magic. This is one of the finest debut features ever made, but there are no concessions with it being a first film; Delicatessen is great by any measure.
No matter the post-apocalyptic details, Jeunet's story of romance in the face of terrible circumstances is nearly as sweet as anything the director has released. It's a very traditional romantic comedy, a whimsical tale of circus performer, grieving the loss of his chimp assistant, finding a myopic cellist with an evil and jealous father who won't let anybody have her. It sounds like innumerable French romances, but the cannibalism makes it seem somehow different. That's where Marc Caro comes in. He has created a spectacularly grotesque, though nearly bloodless world that is wet, dilapidated, and in striking contrast to the story. It mutes the sweetness and gives the film some sinister shades that Jeunet would never include on his own. The characters live in a building full of rooms exactly fitting each personality. The structure is a character of its own, playing a big role in the conclusion of the film; it's a wild and surreal set that barely houses the craziness inside.
It's the performances, though, that completely sell the picture. The film simply is too weird to work without the conviction they have in their characters and, top to bottom, they are brilliant. Marie-Laure Dougnac and Dominique Pinon make a perfectly freakish couple. One plays a cello, the other a saw, and they make beautiful music together. They are a winning romantic pair, and the supporting characters complete the picture. From the aptly-named Frog Man (legendary exploitation actor Howard Vernon, The Awful Dr. Orloff), who eschews the people-eating for snails and frogs he raises in his water-logged apartment, to the prim Aurore Interligator (Silvie Laguna, Road to Ruin), whose Rube Goldberg-style suicide machines make for hilariously dark slapstick interludes, each weirdo adds a unique touch. All of them are lovably bizarre and they're the heart of the film.
Lionsgate has done a good thing with their distribution of the StudioCanal Collection, releasing Blu-ray discs of some of the finest films to ever grace the production company. As one of their first efforts, Delicatessen is not a home run, but it is still an upgrade from either of the previously-released standard definition discs. The big improvement -- the only improvement, really -- is in the image, which looks absolutely beautiful on Blu-ray. The colorful, lavish cinematography from Darius Khondji (Panic Room) gushes off the screen, full and bright with immense detail in every gorgeous frame. A slight bit of film grain is left on the image where it belongs, but there is no sign of damage on the print at any point. The film features both bright, saturated colors and deep, smoky darkness and the results of both sides are a sumptuous success; the film looks pristine on Blu-ray.
Sadly, however, the rest of the release winds up a triple-dip, virtually identical to the two SD releases before it, the second of which was entirely pointless in the first place. This time around, at least, the box doesn't lie about the sound mix, which is virtually the same stereo mix present on previous discs. It's a DTS-HD 2.0 track, but any difference between this and the old stereo mix is virtually undetectable. That's okay, because the mix was always fine and I rarely see a reason to expand mixes into surround when they weren't intended that way, so I'm not complaining. There's not a second where the dialog or sound effects don't sound great; there is consistently good separation between the channels and a nice all-around balance. I like the sound mix and have nothing to complain about there, but the extra features leave something to be desired. It isn't that they aren't interesting; they are. They are simply the same group that we've had for over five years now. For a heavily promoted new Blu-ray series, however, I expect more than the same ol'-same ol'. Delicatessen is a cult film with much ink spilled in its name; I find it lazy that Lionsgate would rehash all of this material. These include a solid commentary with Jeunet, a lengthy featurette called "Fine Cooked Meats," a documentary called "Main Course Pieces," and a collection of outtakes and auditions under the heading of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Archives. Gone is the photo gallery, but I don't care so much about that.
Delicatessen is a brilliant, beautiful, and grotesque film that everybody owes it to themselves to see; it's certainly a seminal film in my life. The point of this review, however, is to determine the value of the Blu-ray release. Ultimately, people who love the film will appreciate the improved picture, but those on the fence will note the barely enhanced sound design and rehashed extras. The idea behind the StudioCanal Collection is sound, but the execution leaves plenty to be desired, leaving me with the mildest of recommendations for an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* StudioCanal Collection