Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The City of Lost Children

(1995) Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Written by Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro; Starring: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and Mireille Mossé; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ****½

“This film is about dreams, and maybe in dreams, we need to see dreams that would awaken us, our imagination… We’ve always been supporting fantasy cinema, and this is what this film is about: If we don’t dream, it’ll kill us. It’ll age us very quickly. It’s as simple as that. It’s what the movie is about.” – Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Fairy tales, in a traditional sense, are enduring stories told in broad strokes, set in an ambiguously distant time. They may possess many (if not all) of these classic elements: strongly delineated protagonists (with the requisite hero’s quest), appropriately loathsome villains, and universally relatable themes, often with a strong moral attached. The City of Lost Children (aka: La Cité des Enfants Perdus)* is a contemporary fairy tale, set in an unspecified seaside city in a mythical era, which borrows designs from yesteryear (think 1930s urban sprawl, blended with touches of post-industrial Victorian steampunk). Filmed almost entirely on a French soundstage for $18 million, The City of Lost Children looks like it cost much more, featuring expansive city sets, meticulously detailed interiors, and a massive wharf complete with ships and seagulls.

* Fun Fact #1: Watch for co-writer/co-director Marc Caro in a cameo as a blind beggar in an early scene, and as a Cyclops cult member.

The genius but emotionally stunted villain Krank (Daniel Emilfork)* resides in a towering offshore oil derrick guarded by mines. He lacks the ability to dream, so he steals children for his nefarious experiments, where he can experience and infiltrate their dreams. He resides with his more even-tempered brother, who exists as a disembodied brain in an aquarium tank, serving as a mediating influence. He’s assisted by four clone henchmen (all played by Dominique Pinon, thanks to some clever effects trickery), along with diminutive researcher, Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), who keeps the clones in check.

* Not So Fun Fact: In his DVD commentary, Jeunet described Emilfork as a “diva,” who was difficult to work with. He was quick to note, however, how he admired the actor’s performance in the film.

A hero’s journey can’t be accomplished without a solid protagonist, and virtuous circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) rises to the challenge. One* may be deficient in intellect, but he possesses a heart as big as his physique. He takes a young orphan boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien), under his wing, referring to him as his “little brother.” When Denree is abducted by a group of fanatics, One resolves to get him back. He meets up with a scrappy band of orphan thieves led by crafty street urchin Miette (Judith Vittet). The orphans are under the watchful eye of conjoined twins and former sideshow performers known collectively as La Pieuvre, or “The Octopus” (played by real-life twin sisters Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), a sort of Fagin (multiplied twice) to Miette’s Oliver Twist. Perlman described the film as “the exploration of innocence.” I would probably replace “exploration” with “exploitation,” since none of the kids in this film have an easy life. One stands as the one nurturing, compassionate influence in Denree’s (and later Miette’s) life, as a pseudo-paternal figure. We’re never in doubt, however, who’s really in charge.  

* Fun Fact #2: Why was his character called “One?” According to Perlman, after he initially read the script, he asked Jeunet, whose only reply was “Why not?”

A predominant theme in The City of Lost Children is individualism versus conformity. One stands alone, as a force of good among a cruel and unyielding city. Miette, hardened by her experiences, gets by on her wits alone. On the flipside, the four clones bicker endlessly about which one is the original (SPOILER: It’s someone else, also played by Dominique Pinon). Much like the clones, the unscrupulous twin sisters scheme together as one criminal mind. Similarly, an ascetic cult of “Cyclops” (who shun their organic vision in favor of a third, electronic eye) function as a hive mind, roaming the city streets, searching for more to convert to their order.

The gorgeous production design/art direction by Marco Caro and Jean Rabasse takes center stage, employing an intentional color palette, in which reds and greens dominate.* The beautifully detailed sets masterfully create the illusion of a city made of bricks and steel, while Krank’s oil derrick lair (a convincing large-scale model) resembles something out of Jules Verne’s nightmares. Somewhat less effective is the cartoonish CGI flea, which stands out amidst the intricate three-dimensional set pieces. In defense of computer-generated imagery, it’s utilized to much better effect to create the distorted perspectives of the dream sequences, or a glowing green cloud of dreams trapped in a brass cannister.

* Fun Fact #3: According to Jeunet, the filmmakers were inspired by the work of painter Giorgio de Chirico for the look of the film.

The City of Lost Children is delightfully weird in all the right ways. Directors Jeunet and Caro somehow manage to rein in the eccentric characters and colorful surroundings without seeming distancing or overwhelmingly busy. The visuals create the narrative. Much like its predecessor, Delicatessen (1991), Jeunet and Caro have created an immersive world made enjoyable through innovative, playful visuals and Rube Goldberg-inspired gags. A mesmeric street organ-tinged score by frequent David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti fits the dark carnival tone of the film perfectly. The City of Lost Children emulates a dream, where the rules of reality only superficially apply. It’s a buoyant, funhouse experience only something truly magical can produce, and couldn’t we all use a little magic right now?



  1. An intriguing review, Barry!

    I have heard of this movie but I did not know what it was about. It sounds wonderfully weird and fascinating!

    1. Thanks, John! It's all of those things. Wonderfully weird. :)

  2. I saw Delicatessen some time ago, and still remember its wonderfully inventive and rhythmic opening sequence. I've been aware of City but have never gotten around to seeing it -- which I need to remedy.

    1. You should! This movie has that same level of inventiveness, but with a larger scope. A beautiful film.

  3. Somehow, I never heard of this film. It sounds intriguing. I love a little steampunk and Rube Goldberg aesthetic. Great review, Barry.

    1. Thanks, Michael! I think you'd enjoy it. It's visually dense, without being overwhelming. It kept me smiling throughout.