The City Of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus)
France (1995) Dirs. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
From deep within a complex lair based on an oil rig, a demented scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is unable to have dreams, so aided by a midget Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé), Irving, a talking brain (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant), a group of identical clones (Dominique Pinon) and a team of henchmen with robotic eyes called Cyclops, he kidnaps young children to steal theirs in the hope it will slow down the ageing process. However Krank fails to realise that the children are so scared of him that they have nightmares instead of dreams. Unfortunately for Krank, one of the children he kidnaps is Denree (Joseph Lucien), the younger brother of a circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) who seeks to rescue his brother, with the help of canny orphan thief Miette (Judith Vittet).
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a name that some people may not instantly recognise yet will know his most celebrated work to date, 2001’s enchanting quirky comedy Amélie. Quite often when one is impressed with an artists work, they are keen to discover more of it if possible. Anyone charmed by Amélie who seeks out Jeunet’s back catalogue are likely to be in for a bit of a surprise, especially when they arrive at his earlier films Delicatessen and this creatively surreal outing, both also in collaboration with Marc Caro.
This darkly whimsical tale takes the nightmare of the dreaded child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to potentially disturbing new levels, with Krank literally getting into his victim’s heads. Just as well this film is rated 15 then! As it is, this grim world that Krank operates in is when where children seem to be of little consideration, with Miette being just one of many children who live in an orphanage run by evil conjoined twins known as Octopus (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet). They have the kids commit robberies to earn their keep but suspect Miette is holding back on her loot, putting her in their bad books. When One turns up looking for Denree, Octopus pairs him up with Miette to steal a safe but believe the duo have gone their own way in search of Denree. They bring in circus performer Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to ensure Miette and One return to them, using his specially trained fleas to deliver a controlling serum to them but his actions backfire, leading to Miette to make a startling discovery.
The story is nothing if not inventive and full of wonder, although not in a delightfully gleeful Disney way, more in a Terry Gilliam, Kafka-esque way. Caro and Jeunet have created a dark and somewhat oppressive world bathed in a grimy green hue where modern technology doesn’t exist but mechanical gadgetry does. The grubby treatment and austerity of the orphanage are in the great tradition of Dickens or Annie but outside of this, no period indicator can be found here in the clothes, buildings or technology with the Steampunk elements engendering feelings of a timeless and unique environment.
In the great tradition of the aforementioned comparisons the characters are rather to type, with One being all brawn, no brains and easily manipulated; Miette being the feisty headstrong heroine who needs that muscular back up; Octopus is every evil foster parent/step-parent/orphanage owner/teacher/authority figure combined into one dual bodied monster while Krank is the deluded mad scientist and his clones are loyal put upon dimwits. Supporting this array of misfits, are the animals which play a part in the film’s abstract happenings beyond the disciplined fleas that are capable to collect and inject serum into their intended targets. It sounds mad but it actually all makes sense within the context of the film.
Making sense is where this film won’t have the same crossover appeal that Amélie did with mainstream audiences since the story unfolds with many darkly comedic and esoteric asides thrown in to illustrate the arcane nature of the characters and the world they inhabit. Using extreme close-ups and quick cut edits the impression it creates for the viewer is that they are the one experiencing the nightmares along with the kids. The film employs plenty of CGI and despite being made in 1995 is rather amazing. Whereas today this film would have been shot entirely in front of a green screen the special effects are used FOR special effects and not for everything. Be it for the fleas, the manifestation of an escaping dream, the fabulous sequence where a simple teardrop sets off a fantastic chain reaction of events or the climactic denouement, this is how CGI should be used – as and when, and not just because!
Many of Juenet’s regular collaborator’s make up the cast and yet, like Bergman with his regular troupe, he is able to constant use them without signs of repetition or ennui. Leading the way for the familiar faces is the underrated Dominique Pinon who not only plays six clones but also another key character who shall remain nameless for spoiler reasons. Cult US actor Ron Perlman is perfect casting as the tough but dim One, despite his inability to speak French (he learned his lines phonetically) but the stars are the kids, all of whom have bundles of charm and personality. Judith Vittet – just ten years-old at the time of filming – has a commanding and assured presence beyond her young age while Joseph Lucien is a marvel as the wide eyed Denree who spends the film simply eating and burping!
If anyone ever had the cheeky notion to wonder what Oliver Twist would have been like had Dickens dropped some acid before writing it, The City Of Lost Children is the closest you’ll get to an answer. It is a beguiling if a little bleak fantasy tale that allows serious film buffs to enjoy the magic young children still experience with the genre, while fulfilling their pseudo-intellectual niche cinema requirements.