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Jeunet & Caro boxset

03/04/2011

Feature review, printed in Little White Lies, May 2008.


(Box set features Delicatessen, City of the Lost Children, and The Bunker of the Last Gunshots.)

Cannibalistic butchers!
Vegetarian terrorists!
Grieving clowns!
Performing fleas!

The ensemble of characters inhabiting the rich and strange world of directing duo Jeunet and Caro reads like a vaudeville poster, and this collection of films invites you to take a ringside seat.

The pair began to collaborate after meeting at an animation festival in 1974, with Marc Caro’s innovative visual flair finding a perfect partner in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s imaginative use of the camera. Arguably, the partnership reached its apotheosis in Delicatessen, a surreal tale of star-crossed lovers and small town cannibalism that was a critical and commercial success when first released in 1991. The plot (ex-clown takes handyman job in apartment building owned by butcher resorting to murderous ways to get his meat) is merely the backdrop to a smorgasboard of set pieces, each more ingenious than the last. One character’s repeatedly foiled attempts on her own life are comparable in sheer inventiveness to the Bunny Suicides, whilst the sequence in which some squeaky bed springs set the tempo for various activities throughout the building has been much copied but never bettered.

The distinctive heightened look of the film made its crew stars in their own right, sending cinematographer Darius Khondji to Hollywood for a spell. Nevertheless they were reunited four years later on the set of City of the Lost Children, another big budget Grimm-like fairytale in which the henchmen of prematurely aging scientist Krank raid a nearby harbour town for children so that he can steal their dreams. Jeunet’s typically playful camerawork (which he went on to put to great use in Amelie) is much more absorbing than the flimsy narrative, however. In one of the opening shots the camera rapidly zooms out, up above the heads of an enraptured crowd, hitting the top of the test-of-strength machine at the fairground and illuminating the film’s title. In another, we share the perspective of a jumping flea. Caro’s futuristic/antiquated production design is perfectly reflected in Jean Rabasse’s sets and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costumes, contributing to the overwhelming sense you’re leafing through the sketchbook of a twisted but prolific artist.

The box set also includes the 1981 short The Bunker of the Last Gunshots, a claustrophobic (and largely unintelligible) account of a group of soldiers awaiting attack in an underground bunker. Probably of most interest to hardcore fans wishing to trace Jeunet and Caro’s darkest, most surreal roots, and possibly budding VJs looking for vaguely related, highly stylised visuals.

Littered with optical appendages, these films are obsessed with sight and hearing, and are certainly feasts for the eyes (if not the ears – City of the Lost Children suffers from some spectacularly bad dubbing). At worst, they’re VJ fodder. At best, they’re the cinematic equivalent of clowning: breath-taking, jaw-dropping, death-defying high-wire acts of visual inventiveness which are both sinister and beautiful, funny and frightening, and which hold a mirror up to society and its darkest taboos. You buy your ticket, you take your chance.

Let the show begin.

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