It's even more genre-defying than City of Lost Children
, since you can't call it fantasy. It's set in a post-apocalypse France where food is running out, there's only a barter economy and vegetarians have literally been driven underground by the cannibals. More precisely, they live in the sewers. Maybe there was a war? Maybe aliens invaded? We never learn. This film follows the lives of the inhabitants of one apartment building, still standing amid the ruins. Its landlord is Jean-Claude Dreyfus's M. Clapet, a butcher who lures in victims with fake job adverts in Hard Times, then murders them and turns them into meat for his shop.
There's still something akin to civilisation. There are taxi drivers, rubbish collectors and even postmen, but the latter carry guns and have (flexible) rules on when, where and who they're allowed to shoot with them.
I'm probably making this film sound like a nightmare, but it's not. If anything, it's a comedy. It doesn't feel like a science fiction dystopia because it's full of comedy eccentrics and its production design suggests the 1950s. There's talk of rationing. The TVs are in black and white. The clothes, the hairstyles and even the music are all evocative of the years after World War Two. Maybe this is meant to suggest an alternate universe, or maybe we're not meant to be thinking about it too hard and it's just Caro and Jeunet using real history as a reference point in order to make their film charming and memorable. Personally I'd assume the latter, but whatever the case, it works.
What's interesting about this film is its tone. Jeunet and Caro take appalling subject matter and turn it into something that's at once deeply twisted and also fit to charm the pants off you. Leaving aside their follow-up, City of Lost Children
, the best point of stylistic comparison would seem to be Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but this film is more innocent. It believes in its nice guys and gives them lovely moments like the bubble-blowing scene. It's thoroughly charming, but it never shies away from its adult content either. Sex and romance is a major motivating force for many of the characters, while of course Jean-Claude Dreyfus would be happy at any time to cut off his tenants' body parts or put a cleaver through their skulls.
I'll get to the characters in a moment, but the most important character could almost be said to be the apartment block itself. The film's doing that thing we'd get to an even greater degree in City of Lost Children
, of showing us the interconnectedness of all things. There it was fun, but here it has more focus. The building is like a living organism. Its pipes and ventilation system are its veins, conveying everyone's sounds and voices into other rooms whether they're aware of it or not. When troglodytes break into the pipes, it's as if the building's diseased. Similarly the building's inhabitants are unknowingly part of something larger, in which fixing a bedspring in one room can foil an attempted suicide in another. This is clearest in the famous bedspring scene, which is so cool that it got reused without further edits as the film's trailer. Jeunet and Caro have a wonderful eye for sound and movement, getting a wonderful and unique scene from something as simple as sitting on a bed in search of squeaky springs.
We have two heroes and they're adorable. Dominique Pinon is probably the ugliest romantic lead I've ever seen, with that squashed-tomato face, but he's a joy to watch. His character used to be a clown and for me he has the film's most moving relationship, but with someone who isn't even alive. It's his late performing partner, Livingstone. Watch out for him introducing his lady friend to Livingstone's image on the television. He wears clown shoes and can do circus tricks, but he also believes that everyone's good really and that Dreyfus likes him.
The other hero is Marie-Laure Dougnac as Julie Clapet. She's a shy little mouse who plays the cello and is as blind as a bat without her glasses, but also likes Pinon and doesn't want to see him eaten. She's both touching and funny in the scene where she's invited him to her apartment and wants to look her best (i.e. without glasses) but also offer him tea and biscuits. I defy anyone not to love her. If Jeunet ever remade this film, he'd probably cast Audrey Tatou in the role.
They're the goodies. Everyone else is eccentric, scary or just plain evil. Worst would be the two small boys who steal things for fun and then throw them away again. They're directly responsible for a death, although their victim deserved it. Dreyfus's Clapet on the other hand is a monster, but also sympathetic. He believes he's doing good! He thinks the world's doomed, everyone's going to die and at least he's managing to maintain some kind of order in his apartments. He's also touched by Pinon's faith in human nature and genuinely loves his daughter, Dougnac.
I shouldn't talk too much about the others, if only for the sake of not spoiling the film. Suffice to say that they're wonderful and strange, from the two old women (albeit male) making tin cans that moo like cows to the delicately mad lady in horn-rimmed glasses who hears voices and keeps trying to commit suicide. Note that they're all well aware where the meat comes from and don't see anything wrong with it, but on the contrary will complain that Pinon's not dead yet.
The film doesn't have much of a plot, mind you. The nearest it gets to it is the stuff with Dougnac and the troglodytes and to be honest, that was my least favourite part of the film. However I thought the film's tighter focus helped it get away with its Frenchiness better than did City of Lost Children
, which meandered. Dreyfus likes Pinon, but he's planning to kill and eat him. A film can afford to tinker a bit more if there's something like that to focus the audience's minds. I'll be honest and say that the film's whimsical structure made it less gripping for me on a rewatch, but it has enough charm that I still enjoyed it anyway.
I've read it suggested that this is a surrealist reinterpretation of The Delicate Delinquent (1957), which was Jerry Lewis's first solo film without Dean Martin. Apparently the French love Jerry Lewis. However I've also read that Jean-Pierre Jeunet was inspired by living above a butcher's shop and by a holiday to America in 1988, where he says the food was so bad that "it tasted like real humans".
This film won a bunch of European movie awards, plus the Gold Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Even more astonishingly, it's a debut feature. Jeunet and Caro hit the ground running all right. You wouldn't call this a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster, but there aren't many movies out there with this much strangeness and charm. If you want an even stronger recommendation, fewer still of them include cannibalism.