the city of lost children

“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.

<spoiler alert>

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?

<spoiler’s ended>

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.

La Cité des enfants perdus

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].

Wiki link IMDb link

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

10 thoughts on “the city of lost children

  1. I don’t know, perhaps it is because I have such a strong attachment to Jeunet, but I don’t find the overall story as incomprehensible as some, including Ebert, find it to be. Sure, it has all kinds of odd diversions and weird “must be a foreign thing” elements, but I find the basic structure of a straight forward hero’s journey story to be fully intact and not that difficult to follow. Then again it could just be years of exposure to the imaginings of folks like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman and Jeunet and others like them who can wrap the mundane, oft-done story with so many warped and whimsical trappings that the story may seem to the uninitiated to be hard to comprehend.

    City of Lost Children is an absolute delight, first and foremost to the sense of sight because it is a movie that from start to finish your eye is assailed with the weird and bizarre and wonderful. It is the kind of film you could watch with the sound off and just spend the whole film finding little nooks and crannies that you missed the first dozen times through. But it is so much more than that. It is a film with a sweet story wound round by a very warped and disturbing one. It is a movie in which the actors and actresses are great fun to watch and before you know it a few of them end up tugging at your heartstrings. It is a film that perfectly blends Jeunet’s romantic sensibilities with Caro’s darker ones. It reminds me of something Burton might do if given the script for Amelie to film. I love it, one of my most favorite films.

    I don’t know that I agree with you that few will fall prey to the enchantment of the film. My own personal experience in recommending it to friends is that they end up liking it a great deal. But then again any friend I would recommend it to is most likely fond of the same things I am and so they are kind of like stacking the deck.

    Amelie remains my favorite Jeunet film, but his adventures with Caro in Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children are delights that I go back to again and again.

    1. I do appreciate your comments and insight on the film.

      it is true that uninitiated would likely get lost in the diversions, or even possibly turned-off. I found the frustration over its “incomprehensibility” somewhat incomprehensible. So I was thinking of a greater audience when I was thinking not everyone will find enchantment with the film, even some of my friends who love most foreign cinema. I would hope they could give it a try though. I read some reviews, skimmed others, and this film in particular seems to run along much more defined tastes.

      “It is a film that perfectly blends Jeunet’s romantic sensibilities with Caro’s darker ones.” love this, so true! and funny you mention Burton, because Sean and I were talking about how interesting it might be for Burton (and his crew) to eventually film The Lost City of Children.

      Love Amelie as well. and I could shut off the sound and keep The Very Long Engagement on loop, it is so painfully pretty.

      1. I do like A Very Long Engagement. I was able to see that one (and Amelie) in the theater. Haven’t watched Engagement since I bought the DVD though and that is a shame. Beautiful and sad.

        I do agree that the ‘greater audience’ would not appreciate the unconventional brilliance of this film. While I wouldn’t compare the two as equals, I felt the same way about Tarsem Singh’s film, The Fall. Often these films are too quirky for the general film going public. But among genre fans I find myself flabbergasted when they are hyper critical of them. In many ways I am sad that these films aren’t more commercially successful so that we could get more of them.

        Delicatessen is great fun. It has a more wicked sense of humor and also has more romance. But it is also wacky and weird and in its own good way “incomprehensible”.

        1. The only disappointment I could find in The Fall was having to leave that gorgeous story-scape… It’s been a while since I’ve seen that one. . One of things Tarsem Singh really has going for him is the Designer Eiko Ishioka who does his costumes. I should do a post on her. Alas I, too, was surprised by the general film going public’s response to The Fall, especially considering how much more coherent it is compared to its quirky brethren. If we could just divert M. Night’s cash flow into better storyteller/director’s hands…

          1. Jeff and I went to see The Fall during its opening week and we were the only two people in a 7 p.m. showing of the film. Which was sad for the film maker, but we had a great time actually being able to ooo and ahhh out loud at all the things we enjoyed about the film.

  2. If you liked this one you should check out Delicatessen (also directed with Caro) — I think it’s slightly better but people are bound to disagree. Also, Juenet’s recent solo effort Micmacs is quite enjoyable but isn’t as disturbing as his work with Caro — which is a shame — whimsy mixed with a bizarre darkness is quite appealing.

    Nice review.

    1. thank you.

      I haven’t yet seen Delicatessen, and I will have to correct this. I’ve heard plenty who agree with you about it being better, which I find exciting. I have not heard of Micmacs, but I will be sure to add it to the queue. thank you for the heads-up.

      I think the addition of whimsy to a bizarre darkness is really the only way I can handle such stories; and I agree, such a mixture is quite appealing.

  3. I will have to check this out. I like movies like this, but because I am not a huge movie watcher I am generally in the dark about them. This is the first I have even heard of this one!

    1. Kailana, you really should treat yourself to the entire Jeunet catalog. I would recommend doing them in the order they were released. One of the many wonderful things about his films is the recurring actors. You don’t have to watch them in this order, of course, as they are all stand alone films:

      City of Lost Children
      Alien Resurrection (only if you’ve seen the other 3 alien films)
      A Very Long Engagement
      Micmacs (which I haven’t seen yet)

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