Sounds From The Belly Of The Beast‘ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie

A longer article I wrote for Montage Film published in February 2008.

Delicatessen (1991) is a French language film, which may in fact be the most complete example of sound used to both horror and comic affect in cinema.

Although the directors Caro and Jeunet are better known for the colourful and whimsical Amelie, this earlier offering, while sharing a certain oddity and charm, is a distinctly darker and less reassuring kettle of fish. While coming from the post-apocalyptic sub-genre (a genre French film-makers seem particularly adept at) rather than pure horror, it uses the tricks more commonly associated with horror to create its affect. One of the American DVD releases of the film is subtitled, ‘Presented by Terry Gilliam’ and both the macabre humour and visual extravagance share a distinct kinship with his work.

At first the cinematography appears to imitate sepia effect but in fact it is the rolling clouds of dust, which permeate everywhere and seems to suck the colour out of everything and everyone. Rather than, as the colouring and music at times implies, being a sepia tinged longing for the past, it is a macabre vision of the future where a thin veneer of civilisation is drawn over the surface of a Paris gone to the dogs in the face of starvation.

Being the tale of the lives of those who dwell in an apartment block above the eponymous Delicatessen, who has a gruesome manner of supplementing the meat shortage, the whole building seems to have a presence of its own. From the opening scene where the delicatessen sharpening his knives is seen to echo through the building’s ventilation system to further panic the lodger at the top of the building as he makes his daring but failed attempt at escaping his landlord’s cannibalistic machinations. The sound is constructed so that the building itself seems as cannibalistic as its owner, with its occupants as much at the mercy of the building as they are of their landlord. For example, early in the film the sounds of the incredibly creaky bed springs of Mademoiselle Plusse as she and the landlord, Clapet, have sex, permeates throughout the building via the flu system for the stoves. The rhythm filters into the activities of the different residents, getting faster and faster with the rhythm in an almost musical but ultimately destructive manner. At first glance the scene appears to be purely about the comic elements of cause and effect and the way in which the tenants of the apartment block are bound together. However on closer inspection it can be read as an act of dominance, Clapet is well aware of how the sound travels and has purposefully left the stove door open as a way of reminding his tenants of both their complicity in his actions and the power he holds over them. He is playing with them just as surely as he was taunting the lodger in the first scene. Here it is the sound which prevents the portrayal from becoming heavy-handed; the creepy yet comic tone ensures that the scene is a good example of how the sound is used throughout the film to keep it darkly humorous without crossing the fine line into the merely gruesome or the ridiculous.

The sounds filtering through the flu-system become vital to the plot, from the landlord’s daughter Julie’s increasingly paranoid dreams, to the whispers that intentionally taunt Aurore towards her numerous suicide attempts. The landlord himself is well aware of the power of the way the sound travels and uses it to spy on his daughter’s conversations. Each character has their own music that reflects his state of mind, to the extent that when Julie, and the new handyman (and former circus artiste) Louison play music together (a haunting duet of cello and musical saw) it becomes a bittersweet act of making love without touching. Each individual apartment in the block has its own particular sound effect (Mademoiselle Plusse’s creaking bed springs, the Kube brothers’ drills, the Frogman’s frogs) which along with the all pervading drip of water from the ceiling into the various basins and buckets and the creak of the plumbing reflect the building’s ailing state. The building becomes almost a character in its own right through the sound which personifies it; to the extent that when the building falls down around them and Louison and Julie fight their way out it is as though they’re escaping from the belly of some monstrous mythical beast.

Screams are used to considerable affect in the film, from the very outset the complicity of the other tenants in their landlord’s grisly activities is portrayed by their responses to the screams in the stairwell while also demonstrating the extent of the hold that he has over them. Even Clapet’s accidental death scene is marked by clever sound usage, despite the noise and destruction that has marked the rest of the scene his death is accompanied by silence except for his own quiet words and the sound of the knife. And naturally the female scream – perhaps both the most iconic, yet least analysed of horror tropes, its power acknowledged but unspoken – that follows closely behind. A screaming point that acts like a black hole within the narrative, sucking everything towards it in a manner that once reached seems both poetic and inevitable. Encapsulating more eloquently than words the extent of the inhabitants of the building’s descent into barbarism in their quest for survival through one animalistic scream.

Speaking of screaming, the aural world inhabited by Aurore is one filled with screams. Aurore and her husband Georges live in an immaculate apartment in the block just above the Kube brothers. The way that sound carries through the ventilation system is clearly an aspect of the building that is exploited not only by Clapet but also by Roger Kube to create ghostly voices to deepen Aurore’s paranoia and already fragile state of mind, while also attempting to simultaneously scupper her stilted (and perhaps one sided) romance with his brother Robert. The frequency of her screams, both of fear and frustration (often in the face of yet another foiled attempt at suicide) cause all sorts of misunderstandings. The screams become the embodiment of the brother’s unspoken rivalry, one to save her, the other to destroy her. Indeed it is a scream mistaken for Aurore’s that leads to Robert loosing an important part of himself to Clapet in an attempt to save her. The same scream ironically gives Louison a reprieve, for though Clapet had made Grandmere scream to lure out Louison to his doom, the same scream strains her heart causing her to collapse and die, thus causing a temporary solution to the ongoing food issue.

Throughout the film Julie is the polar opposite of her father. While he is a passionate cannibalistic survivor, she is reserved, repressed and vegetarian. She tries and fails to reason with her father as he descends further into savagery. Julie’s only escape from her situation is her music, and through it she finds common ground with Louison and thus hope. In seeking to protect that hope and Louison from her father she seeks help from outside (recruiting the assistance of a band of underground vegetarian freedom fighters who live in the sewers) and ends up overthrowing her father’s barbaric regime. If in British horror the power lies in the monster unbound among repressed society, here among the more passionate French, Julie’s very repression becomes the source of her freedom, her refusal to give in to her baser instincts allowing her to escape from her barbaric house-mates.

The world of the underground vegetarian freedom fighters (The Troglos) deserves some consideration. Although peripheral to the majority of the plot through their existing outside the world of the apartment block, their own environs have a no less distinctive aural character. The watery underground world they inhabit among the sewers manages to be on one hand hostile and unnerving, yet equally to represent escape from imminent peril to safety. Much as they largely embody the light comic relief of the film, for all their earnestly bumbling incompetence, they do facilitate Julie’s emotional development that will finally provide her with the tools to rescue Louison herself. The distinctive spluttering static of their short wave radios both above and below ground defines them as different both in their own and the general population’s eyes. The strange wind-up radios they use to communicate seem almost as likely to emit a jack-in-the-box as guidance on escape, yet once Julie has one in her possession it becomes the embodiment of her quiet, but determined rebellion against her controlling father as personified by the all hearing ventilation system.

Throughout the film, news from the outside world is rare and always bad, and the inhabitants of the building hide from that world as much as possible. Clapet tells Mademoiselle Plusse that “At least here we have a system”, as though the veneer of civilisation they are struggling to maintain within the building elevates them above the mass outside. As an example of how easy the descent into savagery can be, it is excellent. The very embodiment of horror cinema, the monster is not just in the safe haven with us, but the monster is us.