Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's newest bout of brutal irreverence, comes out this month. As much as I like Tarantino, I'm dreading the release, in part because art that makes light of atrocity courts disaster (if it's not phenomenally incisive, it's probably dismally tasteless) and in part because Cannes reviews were far from promising (Peter Bradshaw of The Gaurdian called Inglourious Basterds " achtung-achtung-ach-mein-Gott atrocious").
But thinking about the Basterds and the filmic catastrophe its release may bring has led me to revisit other cinematic marriages of violence and comedy, and I've uncovered some gems. Marc Caro's and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Delicatessen (1991) imbued post-apacalyptic inhumanity with absurd levity. The film, completely void of pretentiousness, manages to portray people as pathetically shortsighted while also offering a level-headed dose of empathy.
The set of Delicatessen resembles a Brechtian stage, with an isolated and dilapidated building set up against the backdrop of a foreboding sky. The plot is transparent in its implications: Louison (Dominique Pinon), a clever but dangerously optimistic retired clown leaves the circus after inhumane circus attendees devour his partner (a chimp named Dr. Livingston). He responds to an ad--free room and board in return for labor--at a butchers' shop, not knowing that what happened to his chimp is about to happen to him. An odd assortment of desperate and bullheaded people live above the butcher's shop and all are quite aware of the fact that the meat sustaining them comes from lodgers who respond to the butcher's advrtisements. Everyone, except Louison, is complicit. The tenants feel they need the human meat to survive, although the fact that the butcher's cellar is full of grains and corn and that an old man breeds frogs and escargots in his flooded basement suggest that their need is more ideological than actual.
The movie unfolds in an oddball manner, honing in on characters' quirks and indulging in small details. At one point, Louison and a female tenant bounce rhyhthmically on a double bed, trying to locate the squeak in the springs. They lean left, right, forward in what could be a Charlie Chaplin routine. At another point, the camera watches as the old man in the basement puts on googly eyed goggles for no discernible reason. Throughout the film, a mentally disturbed tenant constructs elaborate suicide plots (an electrocution set off by a doorbell ring, or a gunshot set off by a door handle) that inevitably fail. It's the contraptions that invite fascination, however; the woman's madness is portrayed as simple, albeit irrational, fact.
Ultimately, the butcher's daughter, who is nothing like her homicidal father, falls for Louison and endeavors to save him, hiring outlaws to abduct him. The outlaws, as bumbly and self-interested as most of the film's other characters, botch the rescue and the whole film degenerates into a series of haphazard disasters that leave the butcher dead and Louison very much alive.
Delicatessen suggests the world has two types of people; those who maintain an interest in living even when their immediate needs aren't met and those who have no patience. In Delicatessen, the former is far out-numbered by the latter. Caro and Jeunet make no apologies for the human race, but they do make fun. It's the sort of fun that keeps up momentum without romanticizing or reducing the sinister truths the lie beneath the film's surface.
Let's see how Inglourious Basterds measures up.