Eat to Live
By Kennedy Thompson
Delicatessen, a 1991 French post-apocalyptic comedy, shows the effects of food depletion on humankind. As is the case in post-apocalyptic worlds, nearly everything in the film has been destroyed, leaving the characters with scant food sources. Mr. Clapet, a landlord and butcher, and his tenants resort to eating humans, and the film portrays the great lengths members of the spunky crew will go in order to survive. Food indicates the characters’ approaches to survival and the degree to which they hold tight to their humanity and sanity.
Mr. Clapet, who is the spearhead of the cannibalistic operation, scams people with advertisements that offer room and board in exchange for handiwork so that he can butcher the respondents to feed his daughter, Juliet, and his tenants. Louison is one of the unfortunate respondents. Initially, his frail frame does not please the residents because the last newcomer only lasted one week of meals. Louison moves in anyway, unaware of the nefarious happenings, and engages in a romantic relationship with Juliet.
Juliet, whose nightmares indicate she struggles with her cannibalistic activity, grasps for a bit of normalcy by inviting Louison for tea and something resembling crackers. Her flustered treatment of food in the scene reveals her anxiety as she tries to reconcile her romantic feelings for Louison with her knowledge that her father plans to butcher him. A medium long shot zooms in to a medium shot as Juliet nervously moves about the kitchen, rehearsing her interaction with Louison. She situates the tea and crackers nearly 10 times and even practices offering Louison a cup. The camera tracks Louison as he enters and takes the seat that Juliet established for herself, which flusters her even more. After nearly spilling on Louison and overflowing her own cup, Juliet offers Louison a bland, flat cracker. He hesitates, obliges, and nibbles the corner. Juliet skirts around the cannibalistic activities when she says, “usually people only think of themselves these days,” to which Louison replies that is only natural.
Parallel editing interrupts the scene to show a discussion between Robert and Aurore, who loses her sanity and hears voices. Juxtaposing Aurore’s erratic behavior with Juliet’s nervous behavior indicates Juliet’s mental state fairs better. Returning to Juliet’s flat, an unfocused point of view shot indicates she is so rattled that her vision blurs. Overcome with guilt in response to a story Louison tells about a friend who was eaten, Juliet begins to warn him of the plan and then stops, opting to enjoy the pleasant moment instead. The almost-charming tea scene indicates that in order to survive, Juliet clings to remaining shreds of superficial normalcy by stifling her guilt and carrying on as usual.
Other characters opt for other means of survival. Immediately before the tea scene, Frog Man’s lair is introduced. Frog Man’s decision to seclude himself in a dank room, where he lives among frogs and gorges on snails, offers another approach to survival. His flooded den, green with botanical growth and piled high with snail shells, is the only green location, departing from the film’s otherwise warm and monochromatic palette. Such contrast in color intensifies his isolation and makes clear his intention to reject the rest of the tenants. Isolation chips away at his sanity, as he apologizes to a snail he named Hercules by saying, “every man for himself,” before popping it in his mouth.
The film ends with Juliet and Louison’s narrow escape from the hungry tenants, providing a startling glimpse of what people are capable of in times of famine. It raises ideas regarding how far people will go when they are forced to eat to live rather than enjoy.
Delicatessen. Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, performance by Dominique Pinon and Marie-Laure Dougnac, 1991.