What is it about the French and quirky comedy? A pitch perfect black comedy horror about cannibalism – just imaging for a second that it had been produced by any other country, it would either soften the comedy edge altogether or veer too far into horror territory and become nigh on unwatchable. Miraculously Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro get it pitch perfect, producing something akin to Terry Gilliam (it owes a huge debt to Brazil) by way of early Peter Jackson (the gross out humour without the excessive splatter), all helped immeasurably by the star Dominique Pinon.
The plot? Somewhere in post-apocalyptic France a rag-tag bunch of survivors lure unsuspecting lodgers to their doom in order to eat and keep their monstrous butcher landlord in business. If it sounds frankly beyond belief, it is, but the key thing is (once again) that everyone plays it straight, as if cannibalism were the most normal response to their situation. Nearly every performance is dialled up to eleven, creating a grotesque series of caricatures rather than characters, all save for Pinon’s charming clown and Marie-Laure Dougnac as perhaps the only person who finds what they are doing repellent. Throw in vegetarian underground terrorists and some vicious swipes at French culture and what was left was one of the funniest films for a long time, with a sense of humour as black as pitch.
Pinon is the heart and soul of the film, a world weary & downtrodden ex-clown trying to bring cheer to the situation. He’s about as far removed from the everyman figure we usually see cast as the hero as possible – smart, yes, but not physically capable. There’s always the sense that he may not get out of the situation fully intact. On the other side of the equation Jean-Claude Dreyfus brings a sense of demonic glee to the Sweeney-esque landlord-come-butcher, the sort of character that sees the apocalypse (always unspecified) as another business opportunity. Both deliver over-the-top performances, but neither feels particularly exhausting in the way that other performances of this type sometimes do.
At times it feels more like a collection of over the top set pieces rather than a coherent film, but that’s part of its charm. Unlike many films where each set piece has to be bigger & better than the one before, here they instead reveal something about each character in turn and in all honesty the musical routine at the centre is better than the ending, which occasionally feels as if it’s been brought in form another film altogether. Budgetary constraints prevent the directors from using spectacle to wow the audience, relying on invention and humour instead to create a series of brain bending moments – the sound of bed springs reverberating through the tenement, a midnight kitchen raid that ends with a bloody murder of someone’s Grandmother (leading to the line, “Look on it as one less mouth to feed”) and a finale utilising a flooded bathroom that literally washes everyone clean of their sins. Most of it is played without dialogue, indeed part of the reason for its relative success in foreign markets was that there was very little dialogue (the same reason that Mr. Bean translates to so many markets, although this is markedly of a better quality). It feels suitably “French” (whatever that means in this context) without having tricky things such as subtitles (I kid, but they do put a large proportion of audiences off) for the majority of it – as I commented at the beginning, the reason that an American remake has never been attempted is that they’d never be able to translate the tone intact, it would end up a horrible mess of a film.
As I commented at the start, it owes a huge debt to Brazil. However it never feels like a slavish copy, creating its own unique look that predates Steampunk (which it shares some trappings with) and the “Brown is real” movement that can along in the later nineties. This is a film that feels greasy, not grubby, greasy – as if there’s a thick layer of fat from poor quality meat smeared across the film – but never unclean. It utilizes its single set (the rare shots of outside usually only focus on the immediate street, as if that is all that remains of society – or all that matters) to tremendous effect, creating a sense of claustrophobic almost-dread throughout. The film only allows for the admittance of natural light once at the end when there is the possibility of a brighter future, the rest of the time it flits between near darkness and orange-yellow sodium infused lighting. The effect is superb, creating a unique look and feel to the film far removed from other visions of the apocalypse. I say almost-dread as the light touch of comedy is never too far from the service making it all the more palatable (perhaps the wrong word given the subject matter) to the viewer.
Carlos D’Alessio’s music perfectly complements the look, creating a cheeky atmosphere of serenity at odds with the reality of the situation, a picture postcard version of France filtered via Elvis inspired Hawaii. It doesn’t feel cynical, nor forced, just another character within the film. The charm of the film is that it avoids cynicism altogether, the one character who does receives his punishment come the end.
Jeunet & Caro would make one more film together before going their separate ways. Only Jeunet’s Amelie would come anywhere near to the level of completeness of this his first film (and the less said about Alien Resurrection the better). Unique (and uniquely loveable), it remains a curious oddity of a film with an infectious humour at odds with its subject matter.