“Once upon a time there was an inventor so gifted that he could create life. A truly remarkable man.[…] Since he had no wife or children he decided to create them in his laboratory. He started with a wife and fas into the most beautiful princess in the world. Alas, a wicked genetic fairy cast a spell on the inventor so much so that the princess was only knee height or less. He then cloned six children in his own image, faithful, hardworking. They were so alike no one could tell them apart. But fate tricked him again, giving them all sleeping sickness. Craving someone to talk to he grew in a fish-tank a poor migraine-ridden brain. And then at last he created his masterpiece more intelligent then the most intelligent man on Earth. But alas the inventor made a serious mistake. While his creation was intelligent he never ever had a dream. You can’t image how his sadness made him quickly he grow old”. ~Irvin,The City of Lost Children.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro are responsible for Delicatessen (1991), and Jeunet is credited Amélie (2001) and A Very Long Engagement (2004). Ah, yes. If that isn’t reason enough to watch Jeunet & Caro’s The City of Lost Children, the family has decided this makes for a good “Peril on Screen” for the Reader’s Imbibing Peril (RIP) challenge. The City of Lost Children is a dark surrealist film chock full of the bizarre and the creepy.
The Mad Scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) cannot dream and because of this he has aged prematurely. In order to stave off, or possibly even reverse these effects, he kidnaps small children and steals their dreams. The cyclopes make the mistake of kidnapping Denree (Joseph Lucien), the little brother of strongman One (Ron Perlman) who teams up with a young street urchin Miette (Judith Vittet) to get the boy back. But first they have to escape la Pieuvre, the Octopus (Geneviève Brunet/Odile Mallet).
Or so the story goes. Many reviewers lament the disintegration of a plot, the incoherent if even existent narrative. They may have a point. The above synopsis is true and deceptive at once. For one, the film is the city of lost children, not the Laboratory of One’s Lost Child. There are a lot of characters and a plenty of strange goings-on. In his review, Roger Ebert mentions a Fellini, “In the way it populates this plot with grotesque and improbable characters, “City of Lost Children” can be called Felliniesque, I suppose, although Fellini never created a vision this dark or disturbing.” Entering via a dreamscape, transitioning into mad laughter, moving on to a street fair… From the introduction of the cyclops on, you find agreement with Ebert.
Santa Claus as the subject of nightmares may not come as a surprise to some, but The City of Lost Children have more in the way of terrible creatures to offer. Krank’s lair is populated with the discomfiting, and not to the exclusion of his own strikingly sinister figure. The camera’s distorting angles and close-ups enhancing the effects of Krank’s repulsive visage as well as that of the clones and the female midget. The only sane perspective (even in its lens capture) is the brain in the box, Irvin (the super ego?). Jeunet & Caro’s film is inhabited by and employs the carnivalesque. The conjoined twins, the flea and its victims, the man in the diving bell, and the Cyclopes are perhaps the most chilling.
The consensus that The City of the Lost is for its visual pleasure only may have less of a point than those who desire greater narrative coherence. Jeunet & Caro’s film is certainly one to relish the set and costumes and the darkling whimsy pervasive throughout, no disagreement there. But despite its dreamlike/nightmarish narrative qualities (i.e. fragmentary, encoded), the film has its disturbingly lucid moments wherein story can be found. The child’s world has been perverted by monsters (in adult forms/industry). They struggle against it, even as they meet it rather bravely. As their dreaming has been taken from them (as well as their childhood, family, origins) they are forced to age prematurely; what will they then become?
Krank has been created by an inventor with whom he rebelled; he is a monster and soulless. Some characters in the film have always held their unnatural forms and others seek them out, grotesquely augmenting their reality (the cyclopes or Marcello). They are figures of nightmares, but they are also figures of reality, regardless of the level of consciousness upon which they reside. They scare the hell out of us.
Consciousness in a film about dreams is necessary to consider. Is it a mistake that the looped pull Krank uses to signal an exit from his “dreaming” contraption looks like a knotted umbilical cord? That is a relatively easy connection to make. What about the diver (Dominique Pinon) who is afraid to surface, whose forgotten/suppressed a past he only remembers to fear? There are details, character studies, and there is also the sheer occupation with set and scene.
The extravagance in The City of Lost Children has a role of its own. I read one review where they complained that ‘mouse and key’ scene was superfluous. Why couldn’t the street-children just use the string and magnet to pull the key under the door? Why the mouse and the cat business? The film begins within the nightmare of a child’s consciousness. The film never really leaves that childlike consciousness, however dark, however ridiculously imaginative or whimsical in nature. The ‘mouse and key’ scene reflect the surreality of a city of lost children. It is a moment no less superfluous than the ‘feed the fishes’ scene where One and Miette wait for their respective planks to fall, for the buckets of fish countering their weight to be emptied by the gulls. The accordion steps might be for sheer whimsy. The City as a Rube Goldberg machine set off by Miette’s tear, however enchanting, enriches the narrative. There are charming and silly (if not outright hysterical) moments interlaced, making this otherwise dark film tenable on various levels.
There are very few “normal” looking adults populating the landscape of the City of Lost Children. Most of the adults are either lost to monstrosity or are childlike themselves. One is simple, which works in Perlman’s favor as it gives him fewer lines to learn in French (a language he learned for the part via his lines). One rarely speaks and it is in short collections of words when he does. One is unsophisticated in appearance and demeanor. He is closer to nature, unable to continue harpooning whales after having heard their song. He understands and responds to Miette’s loneliness, offering her siblinghood as he had Denree. He is naïve to the sexual advances of a prostitute, carrying her innuendos rather ignorantly and creepily into an exchange with Miette (“radiator”). When One speaks of the future, he speaks as a child might, in “one days.” One is an odd figure of the hero, but is a hero nonetheless, a human who has grown into an adult’s body while maintaining the heart of a child.
Judith Vittet is compelling as Miette who is the adult in a child’s body, who is savvy to the way the world around her works. She is clever and confident. But with One, she expresses a vulnerability that contributes beautifully to the narrative. And complicates it. Miette is a difficulty, especially in her doubling with the prostitute. The parallel in the red hue of their clothes, the dark coloring, the curly hair, the cool sophistication that is somewhat dumbfounded by One. Sean remembers a version of the film where, when Miette is aging in the dreamscape, she pauses when reaching One’s age and the two are dancing. It is strange to find security in One’s innocence but not Miette’s. Even our hero and heroine haunt and disturb the audience.
The City of Lost Children has the ability to enchant the viewer, but admittedly few will fall prey to it. The best approach is to arrive open-minded, and expect some wonderfully magical imagery set before you. The narrative frustrates, and while the ending continues into strange turns, it has a happy one.
The film also has a sad one—in a sense. Krank’s nefarious antics to regain youth however funny and terrifying, fail. We cannot regain our youth once it is spent. What does this mean for our lost children? I can only think—how might we save them from exploitation, from the theft of their dreams, from their having to grow up too quickly?
Other remarks on the film: We watched this with our 11 year-old-daughter and had her cover her eyes twice, when the possessed cyclops went to stab his mates, otherwise I think I was the only one frightened into disturbing dreams (of which we will not be analyzing). We watched with subtitles that also translated all the names like: Denree read Grub, Miette as Crumb, etc. I wasn’t paying attention to the music as I tend to. Though gorgeous, some found it a bit at odds with the film’s antics. The set was not at odds in the least. I love nowhere places. I like to write in them, and the city was inspiring. The costumes are fantastic!! And I really want a mad scientist smock just like those in this film. If you want to send me one or two—please do. The casting was perfect. There are so many deliberate aspects to this film that while watching it just for sheer amusement, thinking about it some too is also entertaining.
Do read Roger Ebert’s 1995 Review, he is sharp and amusing, as usual.
The City of Lost Children (1995)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro
Produced by Félicie Dutertre
Written by Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier
Starring: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematography Eric Caro, Philippe LeSourd, Darius Khondji
Editing by Ailo August, Herve Shneid
Country: France (watched w/ subtitles)
112 minutes, Rated R due to mild violence and a sexually suggestive scene [at least one, anyway].