It’s exciting to finally release this article. Delicatessen is such a layered film and Darius Khondji is a well documented cinematographer—there was a lot to explore and so much I want to share. It’s a longer article than usual but I included subheadings—so if you prefer to jump around, have at it. But you might miss some really cool insights.
In the 70’s, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were making award winning animations together as directors and in 1981 they made a live action short called The Bunker of the Last Gunshots. It was well received and the positive buzz around these emerging filmmakers gave them the confidence to start developing their first feature. But the scripts they were writing required mountains of cash and financiers where far from ready to take such a risk. They toiled over scripts and pitches for 10 years until Jeunet’s girlfriend offered up an alternative—a self contained movie that takes place all in one building.
Influenced by Buster Keaton, Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert, Terry Gilliam, and Poetic Realism. The duo wrote a script set against a post-apocalyptic France. Crops have stopped growing and citizens fear starvation. It’s so severe that people have little choice but to eat other people.
It sounds dark and gruesome and because of that—the script was dismissed as too horrific or weird. Everyone turned it down. Jeunet was depressed—thinking he’ll never be able to make features. But after a year of serious hustle, producer Claudie Ossard was able to secure the necessary funds. Financier’s were finally connecting with Jeunet and Caro’s unique vision—a fantastic, intricate, and upside down vision of love, empathy, and good vs evil. They were trying to break away from the conventions of the time.
After shooting for 16 weeks, the film was cut, scored, and delivered worldwide to critical acclaim. Variety called it, “a zany little film that’s a startling and clever debut.” Empire called it a “fair bet for cultdom, a lot more likeable than its subject matter suggests, and simply essential viewing for vegetarians.” Among many notable awards and nominations, It won Césars for best editing, best debut, best production design, and best writing. In Tokyo—it won the coveted Gold Award.
Critic Lisa Nesselson (Screen International, Variety, The Paris Free Voice) suggests that “The reason it resonates is because we all wonder what we’d be willing to do in really drastic circumstances. We never know where our survival instinct is going to plug us in and where our ethical standards are going to take us.”
The films striking aesthetic garnered cinematographer Darious Khondji a César Nomination and international attention.
Born in Iran, Darius Khondji is the son of an Iranian father and a French mother. While spending his youth in France he became obsessed with Count Dracula and started making 8mm films, starring himself as Dracula. His dad moved the family to Rome where Darius went missing for 3 days. They lived in an old mansion—Darius was convinced it was haunted and they moved back to France. At 14, his sister took him to The Cinémathèque Française. He started going every weekend, becoming a very committed cinephile. He also started practicing Karate for 5 hours each day and was on a team that won the French national championship. But despite these extraordinary commitments, he wasn’t a very good student and didn’t like school—a trait he shares with Orson Welles. When it came time for college he set his sites on film school but he wasn’t welcome in France because of his bad school record. He continued practicing Karate—earning his black belt. And in that same year, his dad died.
With money his Dad left him, he was able to move to the states and attend the NYU film program where he learned that “all I wanted to do was shoot the other students films.” he was more interested in the power of the image and less with story. Upon this realization he started visiting a lot of museums where he was constantly drawn to the works of Andrew Wyeth, George Bellows, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper—painters that where unknown in France. “it was during those early visits to museums that i developed an eye for composition, for lighting and mood. And I remember at one point I had a sort of revelation: I understood that if you like what you see in front of you, that’s what you should put on film. You should be able to photograph it exactly in that way, and you shouldn’t have to change it for any bullshit technical reason.”
At the University he made an indelible impression on his teachers whom encouraged him to focus his studies on cinematography. But he still carried with him a distaste for the scholarly process and bailed after two years.
Back in France he had the confidence to pursue work as a cinematographer but couldn’t break in. He continued visiting museums and discovered Robert Guinan, admiring how he uses single light sources such as street lamps to invoke the feeling of loneliness. Through his sister he got to know Eduardo Serra who told him to look for work at rental houses. He did exactly that and in no time started working as a second AC for Martin Schafer, Pascal Marti, and Bruno Nuytten—a legend in France. In-between those gigs he started working as a gaffer on music videos and commercials.
His first opportunity to shoot a feature was with director Michèle Rosier on Embrasse-Moi. But it was his second feature that put him on the map. Based on a referral from a Production Designer, director F.J. Ossang hired him to shoot Treasure of the Bitch Islands in black and white Cinemascope. He risked his life shooting a scene on the edge of a volcano and describes the shoot as “madness.” But with this film, Khondji was finally able to create a look based on his inspirations and sensibilities—”I could finally do things on a feature-length project that I’d been experimenting with for years. It was really a big break for me.” Cahier du cinéma published an article focused on Darius’ contribution to the film. It was very rare for them to feature an interview with a cinematographer.
And then came Delicatessen.
Khondji sees exposure as a political statement—a manifesto. And he likes to work from one strong idea—an idea that comes from the director during prep and anchors the film to a singular artistic approach. He describes it like a family tree—the visual themes and look of each scene are branches off of one idea. He says that the greatest directors are really good at sticking to one idea because with too many, a film will fall apart.
Sometimes that idea is “like an animal hiding in the shadows that’s going to come out eventually, thats going to show part of its face or body as it emerges from the shade.” says Khondji
From there, “It’s a quest for realism, so that lighting feels accidental on the actors and the set. Even with stylized photography, it’s good to go towards realism. Even on a sound stage, I want to make it extremely realistic. Not by having flat lighting, but by hiding the trail, to create an illusion of realism, because cinema is never the real, the real doesn’t exist, everything is a viewpoint, even documentary. Even surveillance cameras are placed in a certain position—and that’s a viewpoint.”
Khondji also likes to reference paintings to expand on his own instincts, for the color in Delicatessen he studied Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and George Bellows—he liked how Bellows warmed up his darks. For contrast he looked to the black and white etchings by Martin Lewis.
But these aesthetics couldn’t be achieved by exposing and processing film the traditional way. So, in pre-production he rigorously engaged in test after test, using sophisticated techniques he learned from his mentor Bruno Nuytten and hero Vittorio Storaro. Nuytten would often use an illuminated filter in front of the lens, known as a lightflex to flash the negative—giving the image more shadow detail. And Storaro had developed a skip bleach process he called ENR which increases contrast and desaturates colors. Khondji didn’t like how inky the blacks could get when using the ENR process alone, so he used the lightflex to bring back some detail. A couple weeks into photography he switched to the Varicon, developed by Arri. It was a smaller unit which also had a slot for a color filter. Khondji made use of this slot with blues or greens—bringing a subtle shadow color into the scene that could contrast with his warm lighting.
The ENR process also increased grain but this was not desirable. So Khondji used a 100 asa film stock rated at 80 asa to achieve a finer grain structure. During his testing he also tweaked the ENR process, eventually coining his own cocktail, NEC. The whole technique was very new at the time and the lab had to dedicate a machine solely to Delicatessen.
Warm soft light on the actors and warm hard light on the sets was the general lighting approach. Harder light on the backgrounds helped establish a nice level of contrast. Soft light on the performers made their faces glow and pop out of the frame—an intentional 3D effect Khondji was going for that also flattered the actors. If 3D technology was available like it is today, Khondji says he would have shot both Delicatessen and City of Lost Children in 3D.
Desaturation from the silver retention process enabled Khondji to control the signature color of the film. With all the colors being desaturated, he added extra orange to his lights to achieve the golden warmth.
Jeunet and Caro had ideas of their own for Lens selection and framing. They were inspired by how Sergio Leone, Orson Welles, and Stanley Kubrick used wide angle lenses—liking how the accentuated physiognomies bring so much to each characters personality. Khondji on the other hand preferred longer focal lengths. But he took it in stride and adjusted his sensibilities—embracing how the wider lenses augmented the 3D effect. In particular he liked how the directors would frame their close ups and grew quite fond of the wider lenses.
Always motivated, the shot design is interpersonal and constructive, static and dynamic. When dynamic and constructive the camera drives the story. When static and interpersonal it secedes, letting the performances take over. The camera is used to establish geography and relationships, connecting the characters not only to each other but also to the building, its infrastructure, and set pieces—to a degree where it also characterizes the sets and dressing. It often feels like a messenger or narrator, delivering information that precipitates the next event and emphasizes the flow of the films underlying emotions and themes. It brings the audience into the movie—we don’t feel like observers, we feel like a part of the story. It accentuates the poetic realism, inducing suspense and engagement while establishing pace and rhythm. And often feels like it performs circus acts of its own.
BREAKING IT DOWN
To set the mood we fade up on a dynamic sequence of slow moving shots that take us into the universe of the film. The camera starts on a ruined cityscape shrouded in fog and takes us into a delicatessen at the bottom floor of an apartment building. In the deli we pass by a butcher sharpening his knife and enter a vent pipe that takes us inside the building walls. We move up, tracing utility pipes—the buildings guts. Then the camera takes us into the vent pipe of a third story apartment where a tenant listens to a sound coming out of this vent—the sound of the butcher below, sharpening his knife. This is where the camera stops and hard cuts to a close up on the tenant.
Slow dissolves and technical nuances were used in the sequence to create the illusion—or at least feeling—of a single seamless camera move. The knife sharpening sound motivates the camera movement up through the building—the sound travels, the camera follows. The movement also builds suspense which is compounded by the hard cut and released through the tension of the tenant’s performance.
The cityscape was constructed as a model, the storefront a two story set, and the interior elements were set pieces and sets.
We continue with a series of hard cuts, static shots, and clever characterization, telling the story of an unlucky fellow, lured by a vacancy, to be butchered and fed to the buildings long standing residence. A scheme on repeat that summarizes and drives the films over arching plot.
The unlucky fellow had an escape plan. He tried to hide in a garbage bin to be carried away in a garbage truck. But it didn’t work. With cleaver in hand, the butcher finds him. And just as the cleaver is about to come down on the victim, we cut to a black screen where the title Delicatessen drops down instead.
A credit sequence follows—designed to look like garbage spilled out of the bin. It’s a fun single shot accompanied by lightweight carnivalesque music. The camera moves from one credit to another—each one nodding at the role of each collaborator.
The shot took 5 people 3 weeks to create and was accomplished using motion control—possibly a first for cinema application.
The screen fades to black after the credit sequence is over. A hard cut takes us to a scene of the butcher, selling meat to a line of customers who pay with sacks of grain, referred to as “measures.” Our hero arrives to fill the new vacancy. His name is Louison, played by Dominique Pinon in his first romantic role.
Clapet—the butcher played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus—plays dumb. He questions Louison as his tenants look on from above—looking down from their windows anticipating their next meat source.
Despite Louison’s petite physique, the butcher brings him up to the vacant studio apartment. Few things work as they should—an ongoing theme in the film—the old sink faucet has two spouts one for cold and one for hot, when turning the nob on the hot faucet water comes out of the cold faucet and visa versa.
Even Louison’s taxi broke down upon his arrival—its hard to keep up with maintenance when parts and labor are in rare supply. But there is a deeper meaning to the backwards faucet summed up well by film critic Philippe Rouyer, “Jeunet’s Cinema really dose propose something. The key is given at the start, when Dominique Louison’s Character turns the tap on and they are inverted, that sums up the whole film. In the whole history of cinema there’s usually an up and a down. Down, just to put it simply is hell and up is heaven. With Caro and Jeunet’s Delicatessen, it’s the other way around. Freedom comes from below. The Troglodytes are the rebels, the free people, whereas those on the surface are prisoners…”
Downstairs, Clapet helps fix the taxi while discussing news from town—it’s unlikely crops will begin to grow again and rations are getting smaller and smaller.
Back up-stairs Louison unpacks his things, we start to learn about his character through these things. A brilliant red hat with a feather on top reads Livingston—embroidered in gold. He handles it with great care. A vintage wind up toy is next—a show monkey wearing a similar red hat. Louison winds it up and sets it on a counter, where it walks into the side of a ceramic bowl. This scene was shot on the first day of shooting and Jeunet is unhappy with the lighting and framing on Louison, “first days always suck,” he said in an interview.
Cut to water dripping into bowls on the floor of another apartment where the ceiling is leaking. Bowls to bowls, Jeunet does this a lot—establishing visual themes that keep everything connected and the audience seamlessly engaged. In this apartment we are introduced to Robert and Roger Kube—partners in a small toy business that they operate out of their room. As the ceiling leaks they are hard at work—going about their toy crafting routine. They make lamb sound makers—little cylinders that go “BAAAAA…” when turned upside down.
Meanwhile, two young boys share a cigarette on the stairwell. Louison enters to begin his handyman duties. He holds his tongue in reprimanding the boys, instead putting on a show with large soap bubbles—confiscating the cigarette to use in the show.
Enter Julie, the young, nerdy, and attractive butchers daughter. Romantic music fades up as she takes notice of Louison for the first time. She is aware of his fate, she pity’s him, we can see it in her face.
A dip to black moves us forward in time. Louison is at work painting the hall ceiling, he struggles with his reach but has a fast and creative solution. He anchors himself to the wall using his suspenders and is able to bungy himself forward and back, significantly extending his reach—turning this chore into another circus act.
The action and sound of this bungy painting helps motivate the next sequence. Remember, Jeunet loves to keep everything connected and motivated from scene to scene—using themes and set pieces. This time, he also includes sound and character movement, launching us into one of the most unforgettable sequences in the land and time of cinema.
To establish familiarity, relationships, and confinement, Jeunet designed a sequence—once again—triggered by how sound travels through the building. Nothing is sacred here—when tenants are having sex, everyone knows, and they have to be okay with that. Much like they are with the consumption of human meat.
So, a two and a half minute sequence with 47 cuts ensues. The camera is mostly static, the movement is in the performances. Louison paints the ceiling, Clapet the butcher has sex with his lover on a squeaky mattress, Julie plays her cello, Madame Tapioca pounds on a carpet releasing plumes of dust, Marcel Tapioca pumps air into a bike tire, Roger and Robert Kube work on their toys, and Grandma Tapioca knits a sweater. The edits take us through each scenario multiple times with movement and sound all in sync. It’s an ensemble, each performance is confined to its own space but they can all hear each other.
A dip to black takes us to the next sequence which also starts with Louison at work. The postman arrives with a package for the butchers daughter, Julie. On his way up to Julies apartment he stumbles and drops the package. A nearby tenant tackles it—thinking its food—but Louison takes possession. When the coast is clear, Louison hands the package back to the postman. Grateful, Julie invites Louison to her apartment for tea and a taste of the package contents.
Before the postman leaves he chats with the butcher—they share likewise animosity for the Troglodytes; a group of rebel vegetarians that live underground, blamed by conservatives for causing the food shortage and portrayed by the corrupt government as evil entities to be feared.
One of the buildings tenants fight starvation by eating snails and frogs. His apartment is predominately green—a slight and welcomed departure from the films dominant warmth. The boys gawk at him through an interior window and try to steal a frog. He’s in a food coma, laid back in an armchair in the middle of his amphibian lair—snails and frogs everywhere. The boys antics wake him up.
Meanwhile, Louison arrives at Julies for tea—the set dressers favorite scene—and romance blooms. Toward the end of the night she tells him about her fathers plans to butcher him but he doesn’t hear any of it, he fell asleep. Julie accidentally gave him sleepy tea. She helps him back to his room and sees a photo album featuring Louison with his show monkey Livingston. The album tells the story of how they used to work together in a famous circus act.Elsewhere in the building, toymaker Robert Kube talks with another tenant named Aurore outside her door. She is married to a man named George but at the same time entertains Roberts crush on her.
Back to Julie—she goes to bed full of anxiety over the fate of Louison. She has a nightmare—Louison and Livingston are being bullied and strung up by the building tenants until suddenly she wakes up. She listens to the pipes and hears Louison safely snoring above.
The following morning, Louison arrives at Plusse’s (the butchers lover) room to fix the squeaky bed springs. The first shot is unusual but effective. We don’t see the characters above their waists. A visual theme has been established for Louison—his tools—so we know its him in the foreground, even subconsciously. But we are not sure about the legs, they could belong to Julie or Plusse—both would make sense up to this point. When revealed we see its Plusse—our minds having taken three steps to get 100% there, nearly cementing in our brains this new visual theme. first—the legs, second—dialog about the springs, and third—affirmation when seeing her face. when we think we’ve connected the dots between the legs and the dialog we feel smart and get excited, and when we find out we are right, we get more excited. This creates a positive and engaging connection with the film.
Louison goes to work under the bed while hula dancers are on tv. He asks Plusse to bounce on the bed so that he can see where the squeak is coming from. He makes an adjustment and comes out to join Plusse on the bed. It’s still squeaky. They bounce together lightly as Louison tries to pin point the squeaky spring location. The bouncing turns into another delightful movement performance, motivated again by the squeaking springs and accompanied by the hula music on the tv.
Next up is a scene with Aurore—the first of many where she unsuccessfully try’s to kill herself using excessive and elaborate means—Rube Goldberg style. Her story is one of the more developed B-stories in the movie. She is being tormented by a ghostly voice coming through the pipes. It’s telling her to “come join us in the dark, come out of the light, its better in the dark, soothing and peaceful where nobody goes hungry…” Jeunet uses his constructive and dynamic shooting style in all of her scenes—using the camera to create movement, tracing her intricate set-ups—slowly revealing how it is all supposed to work. Connecting dot to dot, building suspense, and connecting us deeper into the film until we see the whole picture. And again the camera is accompanied by sound, this time a slow deep voice.
For her first attempt, the camera starts on a CU, moves down to her hands, and reveals she’s in a bathtub full of water. Then, the camera moves up to a shelf over the tub where a lamp is powered on. The lamp sits on a long piece of red silk fabric. The camera traces the fabric to a sewing machine where the same piece of fabric is layed under the needle. Continuing, the camera frames up the sewing machine power cord and traces it down across the floor. Up to this point it’s been all a single shot. Now there is a slow dissolve to another section of cable being traced over some set dressing—a rotary phone, some gulf clubs—and up the wall to what looks like an electrical bell ringing mechanism. The cable we’ve been following is connected to the mechanism. Hard cut to a shot of Robert Kube outside the front door holding a letter that reads “Come at 11 sharp. Ring Hard!”
Meanwhile, Louison is still working on the springs above and the walls shake when he hits on the springs.
Robert hits the buzzer on Aurore’s door. This shoots electricity down the power cable to the sewing machine, turning it on—effectively pulling the fabric from under the lamp, dragging the lamp into the tub, electrocuting Aurore, or at least that was the idea. Luckily or unluckily the vibrating walls shimmied out the lamps power plug. The lamp hits the water but its dead on arrival. The lamp sinks to the bottom of the tub. Aurore is alive but traumatized.
The springs are fixed, the boys try to grab a pair of Plusse’s underwear but Louison recovers them using a boomerang knife. He calls it the Australian.
Tenant Tapioca’s rent is long overdue, the butcher says he’ll take his grandma instead. He agrees and everyone gets meat the next day, buying Louison more time.
Julie begs her father to let Louison go, but he refuses. She thinks the Troglodytes can help.
Later that night, Julie sneaks out and descends through a man hole looking for the Troglodytes. It’s foggy and an overhead shot of the manhole keeps the delicatessen sign in frame—everything connected.
The high contrast low key lighting in this subterranean world—with all its glowing highlights—is both scary and delightful, much like the Troglodytes. To express the idea of up is down and down is up, Khondji wanted to give the highlights a distinct golden glow. To achieve this, the Troglodyte costumes and some of the set dressing where coated with vegetable oil, It wasn’t a popular idea but Khondji insisted on it.
Julie finds the creepy, clever, cautious, and sweet Troglodytes and convinces them to help her. She returns topside the next morning and starts preparing for their arrival. She talks with Louison to set up a dinner date while her father eaves drops through the pipes.
Then to establish an interplay between the top and the bottom we cut back outside to a shot on the manhole. It’s almost jarring, connected to the previous scene only by a thread—the theme of pipes connecting both infrastructure and people. It’s a shift in the films style because now there is another world we need to be in and another group of people we need to follow. It’s also close to the middle of the film where it’s common for a plot to change direction. And naturally the pace picks up because there are more things to follow.
The camera moves down through the manhole, into a body of water, tilting up out of the water to reveal the Troglodytes. At first this shot doesn’t really seem necessary, and frankly its not that great of a shot, they used green screen to composite the water in, and its obvious. However it will soon be clear what this shot is all about, it triggers a series of scenes that all share a water theme. Like the pipes and tunnels functioning as narrative passage ways through the film thus far, now it’s also water.
The Troglodytes prepare for the kidnapping and we get to see how expansive the underground is. The minimalistic lighting is evocative and every shot has water in it. The Troglodytes use the water for transportation—moving their story forward through the narrative, through the passageways.
Back up top, Monsieur Potin—the snails and frogs guy—floods his apartment with water, a ritual practice that maintains an ideal habitat for all the frogs and snails. Then the water theme takes us to a shot on a filled sink where a lit candle floats in the water—one of many elements to Aurure’s second suicide attempt.
Mademoiselle Plusse tries to take a bath but the faucet starts to spit and water stops coming. In turn all this water activity foils Aurure’s second suicide attempt.
The postman arrives with a newspaper article for the butcher. It’s about Lousion and Livingston. It says they will be in a show on tv tonight. The butcher shows the article to Plusse and Plusse tells Louison.
The Troglodytes start making their way up through the building via the garbage shoot as Aurore makes a third suicide attempt.
Julie and Louison are on their date, they watch the show in Louison’s room. All the tenants are watching the show in their rooms. The butcher goes to the roof to break the antenna, hoping Louison will arrive to fix it.
Aurore tunes up her suicide strategy, creating redundancies.
Sure enough Louison goes out on the roof to check the antenna. The butcher seizes the opportunity, sneaking up behind Louison, ready to cleave him. But Louison does well to defend himself. Julie joins the fight.
The Troglodytes capture Plusse. They think she is Louison and don’t realize it until they are back underground. After which, they head back up, leaving Plusse to find her own way.
Aurore’s strategy fails again. Her husband tries to comfort her but remnants of her strategy are still in play and their apartment explodes, killing them both.
The blast shakes the building and nocks the butcher off the roof, ending the roof battle. But Julie and Louison get chased down by the butcher and some of the tenants. They hold out in Louison’s bathroom with his front door barricaded. But its only a matter of time before they get in. Louison decides to flood the bathroom and the whole space is filled with water. The butcher and his tenants make it to the bathroom door but get washed away by the tsunami of water that comes out. Louison’s boomerang knife also gets washed away.
The bathroom floor falls out and the lovers are trapped, holding on to what they can as the butcher and his tenants return. The butcher finds the boomerang knife and throws it at Louison, only to kill himself. Plusse returns to find her dying lover. The Troglodytes help Louison and Julie out of the bathroom.
The movie ends on a sunny day. Julie and Louison play music on the roof and the boys are nearby—air playing the same tune with kitchen utensils.
“The end is the reconciliation of the up and down, with the only redemption coming from children and artists. And that will remain the thing in Jeunet’s films.”
Darius Khondji’s work on Delicatessen established his international reputation and Seven established him firmly in the states. He received major nominations for both those films. Since then, he’s garnered 22 nominations and 3 awards, and is still shooting.
he’s worked with some of the greatest directors of all time—Jeunet, Fincher, Bertolucci, Polanski, Allen, Gray, Boyle, Haneke, Joon-ho, Kar-wai, Cuarón, and most recently for the first time—Alejandro González Iñárritu on Bardo.
He considers his work with artist Philippe Parreno on Anywhen (2016), to be some of his most striking images and venerates his mentors and hero’s—Billy Bitzer (he’s Giotto!), Karl Struss (Sunrise).
A 16mm, black and white version of On the Road would be his dream project.
His influence on the look of cinema is undeniable and for most of his career “the one idea” he’s built from on all his films is “that viewers mustn’t be distracted by the camera and should be completely absorbed by the emotional texture of the movie.”
However, Darius is evolving—”I don’t necessarily know if I feel that way now… There are many great films where the emotion comes from the images themselves, where the images tell the story. When you read about the history of cinema, directors such as Ingmar Bergman talk about how the idea for a script came from a single idea they had in their head. And in Terrence Malick’s movies, the emotions can come from the use of wide angle lenses and natural light.”