The City of Lost Children
d. Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet / 1995 / France-Germany-Spain / 112 mins
Besides its anachronistic, noirish aesthetic, there’s a lot about this film that reminds me of Dark City. Both are hugely intelligent, dark and mature movies that ape the tropes of their flashier and pulpy, blockbuster contemporaries. Produced on a relatively large budget for a niche, French film, The City of Lost Children is one of those rare occasions where cult cinema is given the legroom to be big, bold and beautiful.
If you were to turn to The City of Lost Children as an extension of the sort of cerebral fantasy adventures produced by The Jim Henson company (Mirrormask, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal come to mind), then you would certainly find it misrepresented, as its higher age-certificate will attest. The City of Lost Children is a study of childhood, but remains notably adult in nature. Those looking for an escapist adventure are going to be equally as disappointed as those who would find themselves infuriated by the film’s jaunts into surrealism.
From the idyllic Christmas scene that descends into horror in the film’s opening, great pleasure is taken in twisting dreams into nightmares and building the extraordinary from the ordinary. This preoccupation with dreams is central to the plot and is evocative of the entire feature. This is one trip you should only be prepared to make if you are comfortable with getting lost down the rabbit-hole.
Ron Perlman plays One, a carnival strongman who finds himself on a quest to save his little brother Denree (Joseph Lucien) from the clutches of Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a man who steals the dreams of children to prevent his rapid ageing. One befriends an orphan named Miette (Judith Vittet) on his journey and the two quickly form a strong bond that sees them opposed by a cult of cyborg cyclopes, conjoined twins, six identical clones, assassin fleas and a brain in a jar.
The effects, both digital and physical are beautiful and intricate, with the cinematography being equally stunning. Even those who find little charm in the characters will surely still be impressed by the imaginative designs of the sets and the various archaic technologies that litter the screen. A personal favourite of mine is the staircase to the villain’s lair, each step being made of foot-pumps that when stood on, ominously sound out from the pipes of a great organ.
The entire film has a mechanical, crafted feel that holds together what might otherwise be nonsensical events. Rube Goldberg contraptions are evident everywhere, even within the plot and editing itself; one highly memorable sequence follows the tiniest movement dramatically turning the tides of an eventful conflict.
Like Tod Browning’s Freaks, another film that I’m hugely fond of, we are invited to find sympathies with the grotesque and unusual. Even the most villainous of the antagonists’ actions are explored rather than vilified, meaning not only that the narrative comes off as deeply tragic but also that the film’s more absurd and mad-cap antics remain linked to identifiable human themes.
Like my previous review of Repo!, this too is a film that won’t be for everyone (it more than lives up to its cult status). Those without a taste for surrealism streaked with occasionally disturbing and gruesomely witty material may well dismiss the film as perverse (One and Miette’s relationship treads the same tightrope as that of Mathilda and Leon in his own self-titled film). Even though I admitted affection for Repo!, that was mostly due to the fact that its style and genre-blending was enough to maintain my interest, even though the substance was sorely lacking. The City of Lost Children differs greatly in this respect in all the ways that truly matter, boasting a strong, consistent identity and a sense of spectacle that is supported by purpose and intellect.
I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys the occasional cinematic oddity, and furthermore, I’d consider its retro aesthetic as being an exemplar of a counter-culture aesthetic spreading its wings before it hit the mainstream. If you’re at all a fan of steampunk, dieselpunk or any of their fellow subsidiaries then you owe it to yourself to check this one out.