Some people follow their dreams. Others steal them.
Where, exactly, is the City of Lost Children? Is there really such a place? Perhaps it is something literal, like an orphanage, a home where parentless foundlings are misplaced and forgotten. Maybe it is social, like the street life of a pickpocket or a juvenile delinquent. It could be a more personal realm, like the arena of your most vivid candy colored dreams, or the harsh, dark marshes of your torrid, frightening nightmares. There is a temporal metaphor, one about the onset of adulthood creating infinite citizens for the town of forgotten childhoods. But in Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, Alien Resurrection) and Marc Caro's imaginative, disturbing motion picture, La Cité des Enfants Perdus, the city of lost children is all this and more. It is a fantastical place, a watery seaside village filled with galvanized metal and brick. But it's also a floating island fortress in the middle of the sea. And inside this gothic tower, the battle for youth and fantasy is fought as twisted, tired evil looks for vitality and peace inside the fertile, imaginative mind of a child.
Facts of the Case
A provincial seaside town has seen an epidemic of child abductions. Prime suspects seem to be The Cyclops, a cult of religious zealots who purposely blind themselves so that they can possess more "inner" sight. Their eye-decorated caravan can be seen cruising the streets, always nearby when a kidnapping occurs. One night, they indeed steal the little brother of One (Ron Perlman), the sideshow strongman. During the pursuit, One runs into Miette and her gang of orphan thieves. They work for the wicked Pieuvre Sisters, Siamese twin leaders of a racket of foster felons. Miette tells One that she knows who takes the children. But first the Pieuvres want One to help with the heist of a large safe filled with jewels. When the robbery goes wrong, Miette and One travel to Cyclops Headquarters to see if they can find the little brother.
At Cyclops Headquarters, we witness the group sell children to a small weird woman and her rubber-faced companion. Miette and One are captured. They are tied up and placed on the pier, moments away from plunging into the water and drowning. However, the Pieuvres hire Marcello, owner of a flea circus, to send his trained pests to poison the Cyclops guards. As this occurs, Miette falls in the water and is saved by a diver who takes her to his underwater lair. The diver looks like the rubber faced man from the Headquarters, except with a beard. One escapes and is sad that Miette has drowned. The Pieuvres try to get him drunk with the help of a prostitute, but eventually this plan fails as Miette reappears. One vows to protect her forever.
One and Miette see a boat take the children out to sea. Angry that their plan has failed, the twins steal Marcello's fleas and poison One. He attacks Miette, but Marcello comes to the rescue, and he sends his bugs after the Pieuvres. One and Miette take a boat out into the water, and following a map that was tattooed on a Chinese man's head, they eventually find the Tower and the Creator's family. The rubber-faced man is actually one of five clones, engineered by the Creator as a family. But they are flawed, suffering from sleeping sickness. The weird woman is also a twisted invention of the Creator, her odd looks the result of yet another failed attempt. But the worst of the genetically engineered group is Krank. He is a bitter young man who has aged well beyond his years since his flaw is the inability to dream.
It is Krank who has the Cyclops stealing the children of the town. With the help of a super intelligent brain in a tank, Krank has developed a machine to help him steal the dreams of children, since it is only through the purity of a child's dream that he can be reborn, youthful and vital. Unfortunately, Krank's own evil infiltrates all the subjects, and he has nothing but age increasing nightmares. When the little brother is delivered, Krank finds the perfect subject, one not intimidated by the evil man. And it's up to One and Miette to locate little brother, and rescue all the stolen children, before Krank can complete his plan or the diver can destroy the Tower.
Film has always been a visual medium. In the days before sound, the image was all we had. It told our story, established our characters, and accentuated the drama or comedy. Visual flair is as old as movies themselves, and yet so few directors today seem to rely on and relish in the imaginative or outrageous. Since the early '60s, Hollywood and its filmmakers have de-evolved style in a vicious cycle real world recreation for the hyper-stylized universe of the big screen, exploited small events to find the hidden drama. Instead of broad canvases of color or rich, dense imagery, we witness the mundane or maudlin. Even those epic dreamscapes weaved by complex computers and deranged art designers usually have one foot firmly planted in the easy to recognize and rationalize. But not The City of Lost Children. It harkens back to a more old-fashioned pictographic mindset. In many significant and indirect ways, the wild world of Caro and Jeunet is art come to life. As in their previous film together, 1991's Delicatessen, it is a fairy tale presentation of pure unbridled, wonderfully wicked imagination. It's the Brothers Grimm as envisioned by Salvador Dali and filmed by Fritz Lang.
This is a lost classic, a film not often discussed when visionary works of imaginative cinema are mentioned. Part of this may be due to its foreign film roots. Or perhaps, for many, the film is too dark, not your typical sweet Saturday morning matinee. There are very disturbing subtexts to City that do not exist in other flights of fancy. The children here are indeed lost, either captured and tormented by Krank, or forced into a life of juvenile crime by the manipulative twins. We do not see mothers or fathers. There are no caregivers or guardians, nor do we see orphans or outcasts longing for them. This lack of unconditional love creates youths who are vastly more mature, discussing subjects like love and fear with ferocious intensity and sly maturity. One is the closest we have to any type of parental figure, and even he is not really the older, bigger brother. "No parents" does not equal "no worries" in City. This is also a film that wallows in the subtle beauty of the grotesque, amplifying ugliness to illustrate unbridled absurdity. From Jean Paul Gautier's Marquis de Sade meets Moby Dick fashion statements to the walleyed, demon-like faces of the child-napping zealot Cyclops, the film takes the long lost look of the circus sideshow and melds it to a nightmarish world of technological and emotional freaks.
Jean-Pierre and Marc are obviously obsessed with the carnival. The entire color scheme seems lifted from a tattooed man's body illustrations. Like Fellini's La Strada, which sought to tell a simple tale of love and the human spirit within the unreal realm of the circus, the filmmakers use the fantastical festival setting as a means of expressing their themes. Within its pandemonium pallet are the purity of youth, the pain of age, the wickedness of greed, and the comfort of love. There are also religious philosophies at play, battles with God both figuratively and literally. Krank and the clones fight and argue amongst themselves, all in the hope that, one day, the Creator will return to right his genetic missteps. The twins lord over their orphan charges like devils at the seat of Satan's cloven hoof, waiting for instruction and brimstone beatitudes. Even the Cyclops proclaim their undying faith by blinding themselves, hoping that God will see that through both their devotion and their evangelism how truly gifted with sight (both internal and external) they are. Just like the wistful notion of running off to join the traveling show, The City of Lost Children is a chance not taken, a place where the oppression of maturity, of the stark reality of mortality and responsibility turn adults into monsters, and children into commodities.
The viewer can see many divergent ideals and inspirations at work here. But the most interesting influence to wind its way throughout the entire film is American cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg. Goldberg's ingenious drawings illustrated incredibly complicated and multi-stepped procedures to achieve the most basic of results. Several set pieces in the film apply his principles and influences, and there is a giddy joy when their cause and effect logic draws to its ultimate conclusion. One sequence, involving the animal kingdom and a call to arms, is as beautiful as it is ridiculously complex. On the included commentary track, director Jeunet acknowledges his debt to Goldberg's inspired contraptions, and the overwhelming poetry in their motion. And like all other special, unnerving aspects of this movie, from the twisted fable at the core of its narrative, to the subtle pronouncements on love and family, The City of Lost Children is indeed like one of Goldberg's wildest inventions. It's a film that hitches its humor to the stinger of a flea, rides it on the heads of circus strongmen, and brings its heartfelt conclusion to rest in the bubbling tank of a talking, sarcastic brain. Yet the movie never gets lost itself. There is a perverse logic in its over symbolic and stylized storytelling.
No discussion of City would be complete without a word or two about the film's music and its wonderful performances. As he has done in so many other films for auteurs like David Lynch and Paul Schrader, Angelo Badalamenti creates the perfect score, adding the clarion call of the calliope and the lonesome moan of the strings to underscore the strangeness and the sadness. This is a town under fire from within (the gangs of mercenary urchins) and without (the abductions), and Badalamenti creates a theme and an aural presence for every ideal. Sonically, The City of Lost Children is a near seamless matching of music to moving image. As for the actors, Ron Perlman has always seemed like a stunt waiting to be cast. Usually unrecognizable in face altering or obliterating make-up, he normally essays roles as unreal as the location in this film. But interestingly enough, he is the very human core to the film, a strong, faithful muscleman whose basic needs match his simpleton intellect. His is a perfectly modulated, understated performance. Among the child actors, little Judith Vittet stands out as Miette, a child who carries an incredible amount of adult soul and beauty within her delicate, French bisque features. And as usual, Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon applies his elastic facial features to the creation of six distinct characters, all out of minimal dialogue and elegant pantomime.
Unless the artwork for the DVD has changed since it was first released in 1998, there is a surprise waiting for anyone buying The City of Lost Children. It is not in the image and transfer department, though. Columbia TriStar offers a knockout widescreen 1:85.1 anamorphic presentation that is flawless: no grain, no defects, and no compression issues. They achieve this by putting the full screen version on the flip side of the disc. If you want to see how bad the film would have looked had both options been dual layered onto one side, just put on the full screen fiasco and be amazed at the shoddy picture, grainy close-ups, and badly cropped compositions. Problems aside, however, the full screen version with its compacted and disproportioned aspect ratio does add a heightened sense of unreality to the film, and if you can't stand those "little black bands," you could have an artistically interesting viewing experience. Just not the one the director intended. Sound wise, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround offers many wonderful separation moments. Audio follows actors and props as they pass and circle the screen. Occasionally, the original French vocal track can get lost in the cacophony, but do not opt for the English version. It is very bombastic and over wordy, sounding as if all Americans are shouting motor mouths. Still, overall, this is one good looking and sounding DVD.
The aforementioned surprise comes in the form of a commentary track not mentioned on the keep case artwork. It features director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and actor Ron Perlman. Initially, Jeunet apologizes for his poor English, and warns that he has an assistant, Christine, who will take over if he is having trouble. And then the guy never shuts up. Perlman barely gets a word in edgewise. For over an hour, there are anecdotes and insights about the design and production on City, the most fascinating of which is the discussion about the set, one of the largest indoor locations ever constructed in France. Jeunet and Perlman both marvel at its intricacy, and admit that several times, the sheer complexity and grandeur of this soundstage seaside village inspired shots and dictated new, exquisite compositions. After sixty minutes, though, Jeunet seems to grow tired of pidgining the language and there is some unwelcome dead air. And in the end, Perlman transforms what has been, for the most part, a joyful conversation into a little bit of résumé-padding butt kissing. While the emotion expressed sounds genuine, it also sounds out of place on what has been an informal, intricate look at the film. Along with a gallery of production sketches and one for Gautier's intriguing costumes, this is a nice DVD package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is art for art's sake. There is visually creative motion picture masturbation. And then there is the flowery stench of overly complicated eye candy like The City of Lost Children. Swiping a few details from their previous work and placing them within a true carnival of trolls, the Parisian poofs who concocted this dreary daydream want you to find it a magical journey to the center of your inner child's mind. Instead, it's like the headache and nausea one would get after eating too many chocolate escargots. This hyperactive hoax fails to engage as either an interesting fable or ripe bit of social commentary. Nothing is explained, no context offered. You know a film is faced with narrative desperation when character exchanges consist of close-ups of people shouting and malformed actors and actresses sweating. We are plopped down in the middle of a cast-iron version of Robert Altman's Popeye, given a dose of LSD ludicrousness, and asked to accept Oliver-esque orphans as heroes, fleas as poison delivery vehicles, and Ron Perlman as human. Frankly, the film feels like an explosion in a French middle school art class. While it offers a rare poetic moment or one, it's hard to acknowledge this over-directed slice of European cheese as anything other than gaudy.
A movie like The City of Lost Children doesn't really want to show us where the secrets of youth are hidden. It buries its message of adulthood and its perils in elaborate sets and visually arresting images. It symbolizes the dead end of avarice, the importance of familial bonds, and the painful loss of innocence through dreams in wonderful, paint box strokes. But it still leaves us wondering if such a place actually exists. For some, the manufactured wonders of Disney World or Universal Studios theme parks offer a glimpse into the sacred village of eternal childhood. Still others find it in the magic of their offspring at play, in their riotous laughter. Many see it in the eyes of their son or daughter as they light up in loving response. And there are those who, no matter how hard they try or how long they look, will never find the City. It will pass them by, or they will look over or through it in pursuit of a more complicated, unimportant goal. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro have at least provided a roadmap to the mythological place in their film La Cité des Enfants Perdus. Just turn right at your dreams, be on the lookout for your heartstrings, and ride your imagination all the way to where the sea meets the sky.
All charges against La Cité des Enfants Perdus, AKA The City of Lost Children are hereby dropped, and the film and its makers are free to go. The Court restates that, for those who are fans of the fantastic, they should seek out this DVD from Columbia TriStar.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Actor Ron Perlman
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