Sunday, May 24, 2009

Delicatessen -- surviving in scarcity

Directors: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1991.

Before Amelie came Delicatessen. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for his quirky Amelie and its dimunitive and perky star Audrey Toutou, got his full-length feature film debut with the French black-comedy Delicatessen. And you can definitely see the lineage.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic French society, where food is rare and money is useless. Instead, food is its own currency. With moody atmosphere that is dark and foreboding, even eerily foggy at times, the film is focused on one delicatessen. At the ground floor of a run-down building, the owner is butcher and landlord all rolled into one.

In the opening sequence, we are introduced to the theme of the movie -- survival. While Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the butcher, sharpens his tools in the delicatessen, a renter is papering himself and listening in on the goings on. When he is satisfied that his disguise is complete and he is brown-papered head-to-toe, he creeps down the stairs and crawls into a garbage can. He is trying to escape. Alas, he is unsuccessful. Instead, when discovered he becomes the butcher's next cuts of meat. Fresh meat on his counter, the rest of the renters flock to the store for their meat. Cannibalism front and center stage.

Enter Louison (Dominique Pinon, Amelie), a former clown now looking for work. He responds to the ad Clapet places in "Hard Times" magazine for a handyman. But he is skinny, lacking much "flesh" and muscle. Nevertheless, a man is a man, and Clapet hires him, intent on letting him paint the ceilings before sealing his fate.

When Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), Clapet's short-sighted but beautiful daughter, falls for Louison, Clapet's plans start to unravel. Julie knows what is going on and will not let Louison become his next victim. Instead, she seeks out the help of the underground (literally) Troglodytes, a renegade grain-eating subculture of society.

Jeunet's film is dark yet visuallly sublime and funny. Caro had control of the production design, and created a surrealist fantasy with rooms of uniquely different colors filled with strange complementary characters. The green room is filled with frogs and snails and fetid water. Julie's room is red, the color of romance. The characters themselves give the world of Delicatessen its soul, each fulfilling their role and purpose, and driving the film to its climax.

The premise of the film questions what we would do for food if food were a scarce commodity. It offers three answers and a comment on society. The first, and main, approach is cannibalism. The renters and Clapet all know they are eating human flesh. Yet their hunger forces them to make this choice knowingly. Cannibalism occurred in Old Testament times, when Jerusalem was besieged (2 Kings 6:29). Mothers ate their children, their own offspring, to survive. Those who were helpless were made food for their families. Yet, this is seen in the Bible as the consequence of turning away from the Lord and as a dire punishment for abandoning the precepts of the law (Deut. 28:53-57). In almost all human society, cannibalism is viewed with horror.

If cannibalism is one choice, another choice is theft. The trogs will resort to stealing to feed themselves and survive. Stealing is itself a sin, one of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:15). But is it better to steal than to kill and eat another human?

If cannibalism and stealing are dismissed, a third option is to commit suicide. One of the tenants, goes to elaborate lengths to kill herself, but in ways that leave it to others to pull the trigger. She is almost tempting fate to take her life. Yet, time and time again, fate intervenes to save her from self-destruction. Suicide is a poor choice, since it is permanent and hopeless. It is a giving in to despair. The Bible offers hope even in times of despair. Jesus wants us to turn to him in such times.

And this brings us to the option that is never mentioned: prayer. Jesus tells us God will care for us better than he cares for the sparrows (Matt. 10:29-31). In fact, he tells us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" and the Father in heaven will hear and reply (Matt. 6:11). Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, reminds us that Jesus will meet our deepest needs, and food and sustenance would count here (Phil. 4:19). Prayer may seem trite, but remains true.

Commenting on the sad state of affairs when he discovers the truth about the delicatessen, Louison says, "Nobody is entirely evil; it's the circumstances that make them evil or they don't know they are doing evil." This is Jeunet's commentary on society and it is one that continues to resound today. We can blame evil on ignorance or circumstances. Change the conditions or provide education and people will become better. The butcher and the tenants in Delicatessen were certainly not ignorant. They all knew what they were doing. Circumstances may have pushed them into a corner, but other options were available; they just did not pursue them.

No, it is a cop out to place blame on circumstances. We can all point to dismal or dire circumstances, but that does not get us off the butcher's hook. Louison is correct to say no one is entirely evil. God created humankind and saw his creation was very good (Gen. 1:31). Yet, our good ancestors rebelled against this good God and in so doing brought sin into the world (Gen. 3). Ever since that time, humanity has become corrupted. Our nature is tainted with this original sin, and our tendency is to turn ourselves away from the good and from God. It is not the circumstances that make us evil. The perfect garden of Eden proved that. The circumstances give us opportunity to display some of the evil that we carry around inside of us. Our only hope, as it is for surviving this cannibalistic delicatessen, is to look to Jesus to cleanse us from within. He will do this if we ask. Then dire circumstances will give us the opportunity to display the good that comes from Him.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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