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‘Delicatessen’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 17, 1992

Yes, Virginia, the French will eat anything. "Delicatessen," a perfectly ghastly comedy based on that premise, concerns the dietary habits of the gourmandoisie in a post-apocalyptic and meatless society. A punky, futuristic effort by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, it is a tasteless variation on "Sweeney Todd" set geographically near the border of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil."

This would, of course, have us kissing our fingers and squealing "magnifique!" were it not such a laboriously self-conscious attempt at being avant-garde. Ultimately "Delicatessen" isn't about anything but Jeunet and Caro's filmmaking.

The oh-so-wacky screenplay by comic-book writer Gilles Adrien focuses on a heroic clown (Dominique Pinon), who falls in love with the butcher's nearsighted daughter (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and nearly becomes the specialite de la maison. They make beautiful music together -- she on the cello, he on the musical saw -- but her domineering father (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is nonetheless determined to fill his empty shelves with freshly butchered clown parts. To save her lover, the girl betrays her carnivorous brethren to a rebellious group of lentil eaters who live underground.

The entire film takes place inside and under the delicatessen, a creaking ruin that is home to a cast of eccentric characters, who serve the function of dramatic garni. They include a man who lives in a foot of water with his frogs and snails, a woman who is utterly committed to committing suicide, and two brothers who manufacture toys that go "moo." Constantly at odds with each other over the meat supply, the tenants now communicate only through an old pipe that runs through the walls. Perhaps this is a metaphor for that old familiar artistic bugaboo, alienation. Then again maybe it's not exactly kosher to befriend the plat du jour.

Stylistically, "Delicatessen" is a cross between the music videos Juneut and Caro have made in the past and the frenetic cartooning of Bugs Bunny creator Tex Avery, to whom the filmmakers pay open homage. Except for Pinon's quietly compelling clown, the characters are less well defined than that cwazy wabbit ever was.

"Delicatessen," in French with subtitles, is rated R.

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