There was a time when Terry Gilliam and the Pythons had it all their own way. Not any more. Delicatessen makes Edward Scissorhands look like The Magic Roundabout.

The time is beyond recall, when postmen carry revolvers and pensioners have saucepans tied to their pinnies - "If she gets lost, we can find her" - and condoms are patched with puncture repair kits and roofs leak like sieves and "in the rationing, people ate their shoes."

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In a Gothic house on the ruined spar of a blasted street, where mist licks the remnants of paint from the crumbling facade, a collection of bottled fossils live like insects on the vomit of a lost generation. Questions of rationality, suggesting an order beyond chaos, hang in rags from the nerve hooks of unhealthy minds.

Here, the butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is landlord. His nature, whether fascist or fatalist, demands absolute loyalty to the law of the victualler. He is cunning, strong, merciless and not to be denied. As master of his chopping board, he has reintroduced DIY into the insiduous ideology of selective starvation.

He advertises for a handyman, gives the applicant a couple of weeks grace, mending light fittings, repairing bannisters, and then one night, when everyone's watching old variety shows on black-and-white TV, tempts the victim out onto the stairs and dispatches him with a single slice of his cleaver.

Next day the tenants are queuing at his shop for their share of the no-longer-handy man. Money, like nostalgia for pork chops coming from pigs, is a thing of the past. Seeds of grain, or lentils, are used as barter.

Louison (Dominique Pinon) is not the perfect applicant. He's too small and skinny, with hidden talents. He blows bubbles and plays the saw and has a sweetness unhappy children share with animals. Once he was a clown in the circus, with a chimp called Livingston, but Livingston was eaten and so he left.

Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the butcher's daughter, becomes Louison's friend. She is shy and quiet and lovely behind her spectacles. The others in the house, like Mme Interligator who hears voices telling her to kill herself and M Potin who lives in the cellar with frogs and snails and the brothers Kube who construct toys that make farmyard sounds, are no longer tied to logical threads. Julie knows things and attempts to warn Louison. It becomes a matter of life or lunch.

Atmosphere evolves into higher planes of imagination. Truth and reality are without an anchor. From the rhythm of speech comes the intoxication of style. And so it is here. Curiouser and curiouser.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who will go on to make Alien: Resurrection and Amelie, and Marc Caro had distinguised careers in short films, comic strips, animation, adverts and pop videos, before this, their first feature. Superbly conceived, brilliantly executed, it surpasses expectation and defies description, containing surreal humour that remains innocent, while revelling in bizarre nightmare. Like all original works of art, its simplicity is its strength.

Reviewed on: 04 May 2002
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In a post-holocaust world, a butcher and landlord feeds his customers on the flesh of unfortunate tenants.
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Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro

Writer: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, Gilles Adrien

Starring: Dominique Pinon, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Karin Viard, Ticky Holgado, Anne-Marie Pisani, Jacques Mathou

Year: 1990

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France

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