29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)

“…someone who didn’t dream but, just the same, lived very well, yet would want to see, in dreams, a greater dimension of the imagination. For us, someone who is deprived of that is condemned to die. That’s part of what we wanted to say…  If one cannot dream and imagine things, and if one is sentenced to the everyday, to reality, it’s awful.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon,

PLOT:  A mad genius living on an abadnoned oil rig, who is growing prematurely old because he cannot dream, abducts children from a nearby port city and tries to steal their dreams.  His minions seize the adopted little brother of One, a foreigner and former sailor who now works in a carnival as a strongman.  One teams up with a streetwise orphan girl in the nameless, magical city to track down his little brother’s location.

City of Lost Children

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the second and final collaboration between Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after the black comedy Delicatessan (1991).  Caro focused on the art direction, and Jeunet worked with the actors.
  • Caro and Jeunet conceived the idea for the film fourteen years before it was completed.
  • This visual effects spectacular, incorporating early CGI technology, was reportedly the most expensive film yet  produced in France at that time.
  • La cité des enfants perdus was the opening film at the Cannes film festival in 1995 and was in competition for the Palme D’or (losing to ‘s Underground).

INDELIBLE IMAGEThe City of Lost Children is a film that’s built around images: a CGI flea using its proboscis to insert a hypnotic drug into a man’s head, a disembodied brain in a fish tank, and a horde of frightening Santas all compete for honors—not to mention the city itself, a tottering port made up of rambling stairs, arches, balconies and alleys, which resembles Venice re-imagined as a Victorian junkyard.  The most iconic image, however, is gaunt old Krank in his gleaming lab hooked up to his dream stealing machine, a multi-tentacled headdress stolen from the laboratory of an avant-garde Dr. Frankenstien.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The City of Lost Children takes place in a magical city that could not exist except in the imagination, in dreams. It’s a fairy tale, but from the first scene—a child’s Christmas Eve dream that turns unsettlingly weird—it’s clear that this is no standard fantasy world that sets out a few simple deviations from our own, but instead a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is unleashed without respect for the possible.

Short theatrical trailer for City of Lost Children

COMMENTS: There’s a scene early on in The City of Lost Children where a dozing watchman protects his lunch from his guard dog partner by placing it in a basket hitched to a system of pulleys, so that with every step the mutt takes towards them the tempting tidbits rise higher in the air.  It seems like a needlessly complicated system to protect a few sausages.  Later, we will see burglars dispense with a lockpick and use a magnet, a mouse, some grated cheese and a cat to break into a storeroom.  These ostentatious schemes are an image of co-directors Jeunet and Caro’s approach to the movie—they never settle for the ordinary when the needlessly over-elaborate is within their reach.

As Rube Goldberesque contraptions in The City of Lost Children go, both scenes described above are minor league.  They foreshadow City‘s unforgettable gadget, a masterfully choreographed two minute scene where a young girl’s teardrop of despair transforms, through a series of meticulously detailed accidents, into her unlikely salvation.

The teardrop scene is intricate and labyrinthine in its execution, but so simple and elegant in it’s theory that you may wonder why you’ve never seen anything quite like it in the movies before.  The sequence startles us thanks to the tireless work of thousands of unimaginative moviemakers who’ve spent decades placing their heroines in inextricable perils, then extricating them through a coincidence, cliche, or deus ex machina.  With City‘s boldly conceived deliverance, Jeunet and Caro open our eyes and suddenly make us realize what we’ve been settling for with lesser movies.  After sojourning in the magical universe of The City of Lost Children, other film worlds look as bland as real life does after we arise from a beautiful dream.

If City of Lost Children only had the teardrop scene, it would be enough to lodge the film permanently in our memories, but this movie features yet another one-of-a-kind, stunning sequence: the opening , where a child’s magical dream of Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve slowly morphs into a nightmare.  What’s amazing about this scene is that Jeunet and Caro stay away from glimpses of demonic creatures or other horror-movie shorthand that a less imaginative director would lean on: they achieve a profoundly disquieting effect solely through the unique weirdness of the situation.  They bury the malevolence in a layer of illogic; the dream unsettles us profoundly because it defies reality, in a way we’d never thought of before.

The villain of the piece, the dream-stealing Krank (played by the wonderfully craggy and veiny Daniel Emilfork), grows prematurely old because he cannot dream.  Imagination, particularly the unconstrained play of the mind when it’s unleashed in dreams, is both the theme and the practice of The City of Lost Children.  It’s refreshingly uncluttered by complicated allegory or by reference to outside ideas, things that would restrict the free play of imagination.  Like the most basic and primal stories, or like a toy, the movie’s purpose for existing is simply to delight us.  It’s a story about the value of dreaming told in the only way such a story could be told: as a dream.

What extravagant inspirations Jeunet and Caro show us!  They roam through the city they’ve created, unafraid to stroll down the dark alleyways of their imagination to peek at the wonder or monster that lies half hidden behind a forbidding shadow.  Their Gothic harbor city of arches and stairways lies in a perpetual twilight; it’s wrought iron facades reflect the luminescent sea-green waters that flow through the canals snaking through the harbor town.  The city itself exists outside of time, in a place where cloning technology and advanced cybernetics exist side by side with harpoons and flintlock pistols, but there is a late 19th century feel to the world.  It’s frequently mentioned that the city looks like the future as it might have been imagined by nineteenth century French fantasist Jules Verne, a mix of Industrial Age and Space Age technology that puts it the film’s look loosely within the steampunk aesthetic.

If Verne’s influence is seen here, there’s also a goodly dollop of another nineteenth century author, Charles Dickens, in the characters, particularly in the band of thieving orphans and their unscrupulous taskmistresses.  Of course, these Dickensian characters are transformed through the distorted lens of the film’s dream.  The City of Lost Children assembles in one place the most memorable menagerie of vividly defined fantastic caricatures film has ever produced: the mad genius Krank; six narcoleptic clones; a deceitful dwarf wife; the brain in the tank; a religious cult of cyclops cyborgs; an amnesiac frogman mad scientist; a witchy pair of Siamese twin sisters who finish each others’ sentences and run a street urchin burglary ring; an opium-addicted ex-carny who has devised a way to inject mind controling drugs into his enemies using a trained flea circus; Miette, a wise-beyond-her-years waif; and a dim, soft-hearted ex-harpoonist turned circus strongman named One.

Miette and One (a remarkable performance by Ron Perlman, the only American in the cast) turn out to be the twin protagonists.  It’s One’s single-minded dedication to recover his lost adopted little brother that drives the narrative and keeps us grounded in the quest.  One’s devotion to saving the children—both his little brother and Miette—provides the film’s narrative drive, although it turns out that it’s only Miette who can defeat the monster, after exposure to the strongman’s instinctive decency drives away her premature cynicism.  The relationship between these two is the film’s emotional core, one which is complicated by brainy Miette’s growing girlish crush on her brawny protector, a burgeoning romance that skirts the edge of taboo but ultimately retains its innocence.

Some viewers have complained that the admittedly pretty film has insufficient character development, or doesn’t provide enough emotional involvement with the characters.  Given the heart of One’s unflinching moral purity and Miette’s journey towards self-sacrifice, I find that view hard to comprehend.  I suspect that the problem such viewers have is that they get distracted by the multiple glittering fables Jeunet and Caro supply, and have trouble locating the spiritual path within in the unfamiliar fairy tale terrain of City.  One sympathetic complaint people have about The City of Lost Children is that they find themselves lost inside the intricate plot, especially in the detailed and slowly revealed backstory about the inventor who created Krank and his cronies.  It’s true that it will probably takes a second viewing to sort out all the details of the plot, but most first timers should be able to follow the basic good versus evil guideposts, while being so entranced by the majesty of the vision that they don’t let a few missed details nag at them.

The one complaint that I could raise about the film is that the very ending doesn’t reach a truly satisfying climax; the flight from Krank’s aquatic lair, which is about to blow sky high, is confusingly edited and doesn’t generate the thrills and shivers we’ve come to expect from this movie.  It pales badly next to the superlative apex of the subplot involving the Octopus sisters.  Further, the ending suddenly raises a new thematic complication involving the original creator of the floating laboratory that goes unresolved.  But no film can achieve perfection—we love even the best despite their blemishes—and after the never-before-seen wonders The City of Lost Children has bombarded us with for an hour and a half, the mildly flawed finish doesn’t make it any less lovable.

In The City of Lost Children, Jeunet and Caro give us more than we could ever hope for in a movie; indeed, they give us more successful, original ideas than we’d could hope find in three or four movies.  The film is stuffed to overflowing bizarre characters, visual details, and narrative invention.  Jeunet and Caro traffic in unashamedly gratuitous imagination.  So many of the touches in the movie are unnecessary, except that they are beautiful; and beauty makes its own necessity.  They give us too much, and we respond: more, please.  And yet, for all the seeming anarchy of their vision, the story never spins out of control; it’s always unified by a particular tone, a particular look, a particular feel.  It would have been easy for the directors to become intoxicated with themselves and grow sloppy, but in light of all the gimmicks and gewgaws they’ve stuffed into the movie, they retain a remarkable control and never lose focus on the story.  They capture a chaotic dream in a gleaming little vial, and offer it to us for our wonder and amusement.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…set in a world plunged into endless twilight-cum-night, the film posits a kind of neo-Victorian, industrial society where David Lynch would feel at home… like a Looney Tunes fantasy sprung from the head of Jules Verne… with each frame filled to bursting point with visual detail and multiplaned design, plus razor-sharp cutting that often eliminates transitions, it’s not a movie you can afford to take your eyes off for a second.”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…so enraptured by its own visual gimmickry and weird characters that it forgets to connect the dots of its overly populous story… The movie is best appreciated as a collection of whimsical toys drawn from a fantasy grab bag that encompasses everything from Grimm’s fairy tales to ‘Star Wars.'”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…essentially a hugely inventive blend of dream, fairytale and myth…  a strange, sinister sea-girt world that functions according to its own crazy logic… Extraordinary.”–Geoff Anderson, Time Out

IMDB LINK: La cité des enfants perdus (1995)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The City of Lost Children – fan site with little original content, but some stills and movie posters and links to reviews and interviews

DVD INFO: The Sony DVD (buy) contains a commentary by co-director Jeunet and Ron Perlman, along with trailers and galleries of costume designs and production sketches. Avoid the full frame, English-dubbed version that has played on American cable television if at all possible.

UPDATE: In late 2015 Sony finally released City on Blu-ray (buy). The film is remastered and this “20th Anniversary” edition adds  a new “making of” featurette and an interview with costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to the extras preserved from the DVD release.

5 thoughts on “29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)”

  1. I haven’t been on this site in a while. Ah, the city of Lost Children. With Angelo Badalementi scoring the music, the Fifth Element’s costume designer, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet co directing, you’ve got a great film!

  2. I think we’ve seen stuff like the teardrop scene in cinema before. Especially a few early Disney and WB cartoons come to mind, I guess.

    What’s painfully missing from this review is how “City of Lost Children” is the second of Jeunet and Caro’s hommages to Terry Gilliam after their earlier “Delicatessen”. They’ve said in interviews that the style of the two films deliberately mimicks Gilliam’s, and one of the two was even released in the States with a “Terry Gilliam presents” sign in the credits.

    And I feel the city’s era is much closer to the 1920s and 1930s, making it not really steampunk, but rather dieselpunk aka decodence. For me, it’s simply the dark decodence style pioneered by “Brazil”, it’s just that all the futuristic technology is confined to Krank’s platform. Krank’s name, BTW, means “sick” in German, which I doubt is a coincidence, also with all the genre’s references to German Expressionism that also Jeunet and Caro were toying with.

    Anyway, wasn’t the floating lab originally created by the amnesiac inventor-turned-diver? As much as I remember, he created parts of the lab’s scenery, then lost his memory when he got hit on the head, ever since when he took refuge in the sewers and lived off whatever floated by or he could find in the sea.

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