Before Amélie and before Alien: Resurrection, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had a partnership with designer and comic book artist Marc Caro, which began in 1974 when the pair met at an animation festival. In the early animated shorts they made together, Jeunet was responsible for the camera work and the cast, and Caro would take care of the overall design. Later they went on to make two live action features, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children – arguably Jeunet’s best work – which are now collected in a new box-set from Optimum together with their 1981 short The Bunker of the Last Gunshots.
Delicatessen is the story of Louison (Dominique Pinon), an ex-clown in a post-apocalyptic France who is forced to take a job as a handyman in an apartment building above a butcher’s in exchange for food and lodging. There he meets and falls in love with Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the butcher’s daughter. However, the reason the tenants survive while everyone outside is starving is that the butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is supplying them with ‘long pig’ and next on the menu is filet Louison!
Several critics have argued that the plot of Delicatessen is really just an excuse for the visually stunning and endlessly creative set pieces. This is supported by the theatrical trailer, which only contains the celebrated scene where some squeaky bed springs provide the rhythm for a symphony arising from the activity of each tenant – painting with a roller, playing the cello, inflating a bicycle tyre, etc. However, this is to do an injustice to Jeunet and Caro’s storytelling abilities. In the context of the film, the tenants are trying to drown out the noise of the local tart earning her cut of the meat by satisfying the butcher’s sexual appetite. So while the set pieces are very funny, they’re never gratuitous and each scene is in line with the plot.
Like that other great directing partnership the Coen brothers, Jeunet and Caro use circles as a kind of visual signature for their work. In Delicatessen, it’s bubbles, plug holes and manhole covers. In The City of Lost Children, it’s the bionic eye that Krank (Daniel Emilfork) – the degenerate clone of a mad scientist who must steal children’s dreams in order to live – gives to blind men in exchange for their service as cyclopean child catchers. However, the most important circle to Jeunet and Caro is the circus. Delicatessen‘s clown Pinon returns in Lost Children as the original scientist, playing also seven of his healthy clones. He’s joined by Ron Perlman as a strongman looking for his kidnapped brother and by Delicatessen‘s butcher Dreyfus as an-ex ringmaster who’s lost everything except for his flea circus. Taking the best bits from Oliver!, Annie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and transporting them to a sci-fi future, the film has it all, including incredibly detailed sets, CGI that at the time was pioneering, costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier and a soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti. The performances are great too, with the precocious Judith Vittet as the leader of a gang of orphans being the perfect counterpart to Perlman’s monosyllabic giant.
Both movies have been available as separate DVDs with all the usual extras for a while now. However, the box-set offers the first chance to see Jeunet and Caro’s 26-minute live action short The Bunker of the Last Gunshots. The film focuses on a bunch of soldiers and military scientists who become increasingly paranoid while waiting for the enemy to show up during the last days of a war that could have created the barren world of Delicatessen and Lost Children. This short will be of most interest to fans looking to trace the development of Jeunet and Caro’s style. With no dialogue, there’s already the emphasis on rhythm and the bald bad guys with wires coming out of their heads that characterise their later work. There is also an interesting connection to Aliens: the striking similarity between the external scenes and armoured personnel carrier in Bunker (1981) and the external scenes and armoured personnel carrier in Aliens (1986) makes it possible to speculate that James Cameron may have seen and been influenced by Bunker.