Cannibal butchers! Terrorist vegetarians! Noisy sex! Steampunk poison laden fleas! Clones, drones and cyclops religious groups! Welcome to the strange and hyperactive world of Jeunet & Caro.
With only two features to their name Jeunet and Caro have risen from the live fast, die young world of the pop video to, in the case of Jeunet, the heady heights of the Hollywood big budget feature. Despite appearing to emerge at the tail end of the French 80’s nouvelle vogue (sic) their partnership began with the 1981 short Le Bunker de la Dernière Rafale, continuing sporadically to their feature film debut Delicatessen (1991). The unique visual style and the hyperbolic relational elements that characterise their work is reflected in both this period of pop videos/commercials and in Caro’s Metal Hurlent (Europe’s premiere science fiction comic) inspired style.
Foutaises (1990) won a Cesar for best short. Shot in black and white it is the filmic equivalent of the McLaren/Westwood tee-shirt (1976) in it’s lists of hates and likes, ranging from the personal to the hip, the surreal to the ordinary. Reminiscent of Jane Campion’s Passionless Moments (1984) it delivers an eclectic and personal view of various (absurd) situations, into which the audience can delight in recognition and association. Visually slick it harks back to Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) with a vacuous post-modern sheen – the spirit of 1976 given a 90’s polish. Star of the show is the remarkable Dominique Pinon who’s elastic features enhance the hyper-reality of both this and their two feature films.
Delicatessen (1991) was financed on the success of Foutaises by long time collaborator and Betty Blue producer Claudie Ossard. The budget was twenty million francs, quite a high gamble for a debut. The money was well spent, you can see every centime on the screen. The plot: a house with a menagerie of tenants and a deli below. A butcher with a beautiful but myopic cello playing daughter. Meat is on everyone’s mind and it’s these tenants that may supply it, as dinner. Grain is the currency. Everyone is out to survive the best way that they can. Send in the clown, Louison (Dominique Pinon), looking for a room in exchange for handyman work. It soon becomes very clear that he will be next on the menu if he doesn’t stay ahead of the game. Fear not for the Troglodistes, an army of underground terrorist vegetarians, are on hand to save the day. Maybe.
The plot is superfluous to the relentless tide of set pieces. The films world-wide success is perhaps accountable to it’s trailer which consists of one of the set-pieces in its entirety; it is also devoid of both subtitles and dialogue so your average cinema goer is not marginalised, until they’ve parted with their hard earned cash that is. It comprises the now famous bonking scene, where the creaking springs of the bed dictate the pace at which the entire household carries out its daily business and results in a truly catastrophic climax!
Jeunet and Caro enjoy exploring consequences, and mathematicians studying Chaos Theory could have endless fun investigating the probabilities of the various events occurring. The repercussions that result from a ball of string falling down the stairs have to be seen to be believed. There are also the Heath Robinson style devices which Amore, a particularly paranoid tenant, devises to bring about her suicide, which fail hopelessly at the very last moment.
Whilst the context of the film appears post-apocalyptic it could easily be placed in the rationed environment of post-war France. In this scenario modern ideals of everyone out for themselves meet a restrictive, old fashioned, yet community based society. The only time this oppressive, fog and grime ridden world is ejected is in the final shot, with our hero and heroine playing their respective instruments (her a cello , he his trusty saw) in the oil painting intensity daylight on the rooftop. It’s almost heaven, and perhaps it is.
Visually the film is a masterpiece; the camera swirls and glides effortlessly yet the overall look is that of the 1940’s French films it often alludes to. Carné, Renoir and Ophuls are clearly the inspiration behind Khondji’s breathtaking cinematography. Ironically a great deal of this classical style visualisation was achieved using post-production video enhancement but hey, that’s post-modernism for you. Khondji (who’s photography on Se7en saved the Dr Phibes meets Silence of the Lambs plot) uses a high contrast almost sepia toned lighting to further heighten the sense of otherworldliness.
Delicatessen’s main trump card is it’s attitude towards the Hollywood style of film. It tackles it technically head on and matches it in both proficiency and seamlessness of effects. Yet, despite all this, it is resolutely French in both it’s outlook and portrayal. Food is the driving currency and concern, unlike the Australian Hollywood Mad Max’s need for petrol. This emphasises the basic human needs; food sustaining life and petrol sustaining action packed car chases! Let’s face it, food is far more sophisticated and civilised anyway. The hero is a catalyst for the films events and not the motivation for them. The peripheral characters are given equal space in the film. The sex, however seedy, is not shot with gallons of baby oil and the accompanying soundtrack consists of springs, dusters, a cello, a paint roller and the testing of ‘sheep in a tin’ as opposed to a heavy metal or sax score. Most of the cast are grubby in apparel, many of them would find casting in America very difficult outside of a David Lynch film. Even the titles dispose of the Letraset and go instead for a more contextual Peter Greenaway look.
The film’s success is measured in the careers of all concerned. Khondji is one of the most sought after cinematographers in the USA, the effects crew were snapped up by Pedro Almodovar to work on Alex de la Iglesia’s Accion Mutante (1992), which features a similarly rickshod group of misfit terrorists and everyone was reunited to make the most expensive film in French cinema at that time… The City of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus) (1995).
A young child sits in his cot in a room that is cheerily decorated. It is Christmas Eve. A tin clockwork soldier marches and clatters his cymbals making a gentle tinkling sound. The room glows with a soft, warm, homely light and peace is all around. A rope drops down from within the chimney and a pair of familiar looking black boots appear. It’s Santa! He climbs down through the fireplace, carefully brushes the soot from his fluffy red coat and offers the child a wonderful toy. The soldier is still marching and the cymbals still tinkle. Then another pair of boots appear from within the chimney. And another. The room is soon full of smiling Santas. The childs expression changes from one of joy to fear. As the Santa’s begin to melt and warp, the child begins to wail…
Far away out to sea on an oil rig platform surrounded by giant mines, the evil Krank arranges for the kidnapping of young children from the nearest port so that he can steal their dreams. It is the mission of circus strongman, One, with the aid of the streetwise orphan Miette, to find and rescue One’s little brother.
Set in a world far removed from anything we could conceive, The City of Lost Children is a fairy tale for the 90’s. It is at once sinister and beautiful, funny and frightening, antiquated and futuristic. The diegesis is completely self-contained in that the film is not set in the past, present or future, and does not present an alternative history or a post apocalyptic environment. This is a world of dreams and nightmares and there is no other context upon which to base this reality.
The city is a port, with a filthy harbour. The streets are narrow and dingy and set on many levels, reminiscent of Victorian London. The residents are either corrupt or living in fear. Yet the technology is remarkable. The Cyclops, a religious group who kidnap the children on Kranks behalf, rely upon video implants direct to the optical nerve via a beautiful antique brass contraption. In one instance a deranged cyclops, infected by a trained flea to become homicidal, plugs his implant into the cyclops’ victim in order that the victim may witness his own death, a cyberpunk updating of Powells Peeping Tom.
Once again in-depth characterisation is lacking, but there are a plethora of subsidiary eccentrics, weirdoes and freaks who contribute to the narrative. There are the evil conjoined twins, known as the Octopus, who force the city orphans to steal for them, the clones (all played by Dominique Pinon sometimes six in the scene at once) who hare about maniacally serving their master Krank to the best of their ability, the mysterious amnesiac diver and the ex-circus owner who has the best trained fleas in the land. Add a sympathetic whore, a brain with an argumentative manner that is prone to migraine, defiant henchmen and a dog cruelly kept in line by having his lead attached, via pulleys, to a basket of sausages that rise tantalisingly out of sight upon every approach, and you have less a list of characters and more of a circus.
Set pieces abound, again applying chaotic principle to absurd conclusion. In one truly jaw dropping sequence a single tear leads to the crash of a major ocean bound liner in a roller-coaster ride of implausible cause and effect. Others include the journeys of the aforementioned fleas, some dizzying green gas and the final rescue attempt. Clearly the result of extensive storyboarding (apparently the film had been gestating for almost 14 years before realisation) the marrying of conventional camerawork and computer generated effects has reached it’s pinnacle so far.
Inevitably the film begs to be compared to Gilliams fantasy trilogy (Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen) in both look and feel. Many of the shots appear straight out of Brazil, and it’s blurring of dream and reality head in that direction. It fails to live up to these aims for a number of reasons; firstly there is the lack of character depth, then there is the lack of literary depth that imbues Gilliams oeuvre and, most importantly, it replaces paranoia and impotence with Sadean cruelty. In Delicatessen the characters have a Chuck Jones style of violence associated with them, here the tone is altogether more unwholesome. The film delights in the torture of everyone involved, good, evil or indifferent – Miette is enslaved, forced into crime, bound, drowned, brutally beaten by her only friend (under the influence of poison), subjected to a multitude of mental tortures and exposed to unsavoury sexual behaviour. In this respect the film is Grimm in the strictest sense of the word and one of only a handful of films that is (Company of Wolves and The Magic Toyshop being the only others that spring to mind). Ultimately though, the fantasy context nullifies any perspective that would normally be considered unacceptable and the resolution justifies the means, as all good fairytales do.
Visually we have to thank not only cinematographer Khondji and Caro himself but also the talents of fashion fave Jean-Paul Gaultier (he of Eurotrash fame and also costume designer for Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover and Almodovar’s Kika) and the work of the two effects groups used on the film. Indeed the effects remit was monumental, Pitof/Dudoi had to provide 144 shots of digitally manipulated imagery including the multiple Clones, the giddy organic backdrops and the cyclops viewfinders; Buf Compagnie provided some 48 shots of computer generated material including a flea so realistic it has you scratching. As a result of these efforts they are to be responsible for the visual effects of Jeunet’s forthcoming movie Alien Resurrection, one of the summers big Hollywood blockbusters.
So, what of the future? Alien 4 as a concept seems like a monumentally bad idea, especially if it involves the resurrection of Sigourney Weaver. With Jeunet at the helm and his “dream team” of effects technicians however, we may have a more unusual and interesting film than previous expectations led us to believe. Perhaps what is really in order though is another high budget French film, without the artistic constraints of commercial Hollywood cinema but with the bizarre perspective of two European artists
Delicatessen is available on Electric Video. If you are lucky you may still be able to pick up the box set that includes Foutaises , a little booklet and a rather groovy pig badge.
The City of Lost Children is available on Lumiere Video. DO NOT rent this from your local video store as it’s both “pan ‘n’ scanned” and dubbed, besides which you’ll probably want to watch it more than once!
http://www.movienet.com/movienet/sonycl/city/index.html – is a couple of years old but really the only useful (English) Jeunet & Caro site.
If you like these why not try:
Accion Mutante (1992) Alex de la Iglesia
Eraserhead (1976) David Lynch
The Tenant (1976) Roman Polanski
Brazil (1985) Terry Gilliam
Kafka (1991) Steven Soderbergh
Street of Crocodiles (1986) & The Unnameable Little Broom(1985) The Brothers Quay
Anything by Jan Svankmajer (Czech surrealist animator)