That title is sure to bring us a few hits.
Anyways, grumps can sometimes run into problems inherent to their grumpiness. Because I have grown so jaded and tired of “normal” films. Ah, yes, Brad Pitt and George Clooney are hanging out in casinos again and getting paychecks for it. Ho hum. Will Smith’s ruining another classic science fiction novel? Yawwwwwn. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find films that surprise or pique that special little area in my brain that responds to pleasant novelty. I’m becoming so hostile to middle-of-the-road entertainment that I came close to berating a co-worker who said to me about a discussion over TV shows, “You’re thinking too hard. It’s only television!” One day I will reach a point where I will only find Eastern European musicals about paraplegic faeries sung entirely in Esperanto to be amusing. But for now, I’m still hitting the softer stuff. Stuff like La Cité des Enfants Perdus (City of the Lost Children).
So what is City of the Lost Children about? You may be surprised to learn it is about missing children. But not just that! You see, this is a movie of twists and turns. A movie that wraps back around itself in a pretzel of mystery and whimsy. Okay, so I’m exaggerating, but it’s still a fucking weird movie. The film starts out by introducing us to the carny strongman, One (Hellboy‘s Ron Perlman). Yes, his name is the number 1 (but I’m betting that it means something awesome in French?). He lives a humble, borderline retarded existence with his promoter and a small boy that he has taken in and treated like a brother. This child is almost never not thinking about food. If there is a scene where he is not eating something, he is plotting about how he will eat something in the future. Anyways, one night One finds a group of sinister men with cybernetic goggles grafted to their eyes luring his little brother in the most hilariously simple way possible. Putting up a fight, One sadly loses his brother to the Cyclops, making him determined to track them down and rescue his smaller friend.
Shortly into his chase, he chances upon Miette (Judith Vittet), a jaded young orphan girl who heads up a group of street urchins who rob citizens and give the spoils to their cruel, conjoined twin bosses, the Octopus (Geneviève Brunet & Odile Mallet). Miette, contrary to her tough-girl ways, begins to warm up to One’s considerable idiocy, staunch loyalty and loving heart. Say it with me: Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.
MEANWHILE! On a floating island/lab/rig-thing, a motley crew are acquiring appropriated children for use in experiments. Long ago, a mad scientist created an artificial life, Krank (Daniel Emilfork), that was a super genius. But it had no soul, and because it could not dream, it aged too quickly. Now an old man, it plucks children from the city and attempts to steal their dreams in hopes of reclaiming his youth. Aiding and abetting him in this wicked scheme are several clones (Delicatessen‘s Dominique Pinon) of the original mad scientist (unfortunately afflicted with narcolepsy), the scientist’s midget wife and a brain in a tank. To say that they have wacky mishaps would be an understatement. So the movie is basically about how Miette and One bond, and how they eventually confront the villainous Krank.
The first thing you can probably tell about this movie is that it’s weird. Completely oddball. Relentlessly unique. And therein lies its beauty. Directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) and Marc Caro (Delicatessen) obviously are attuned to the strange and unusual. Jeunet’s practically staked his reputation on being the French weirdo amongst weirdos. Amélie wouldn’t have been half the movie it ended up being if it had been a rote, stock romantic comedy. No one could ever call City of the Lost Children run of the mill, however. Consider this: the opening scene of the movie features a happy child meeting Santa Claus on Christmas… but more and more Santas appear until his room is full of the creepy, bearded old men and the sweet, fawning atmosphere turns into one of disquiet and a menace that at once feels both innocent and somehow all the more creepy because of that.
And that’s exactly the sort of quality that makes City of the Lost Children so special, in my opinion. Whenever the movie gets intense, it’s not a horror movie sort of intense. It’s a Grimm fairy tale sort of intense. If not for a few splotches of violence and a brief moment of nudity, this could be a kids’ movie. An incredibly strange, stylized one, but a kids’ movie, nonetheless. It’s typical that a few flouncing breasts garnered this movie an R rating in the USA. But I suppose it’s also possible that the type of menace that this movie is capable of exuding is to be blamed for that, as well. That opening scene I described featuring a traumatized child would definitely make parents reach for their children and hustle them out of the theater (I saw a mother rush her kid out of the room when Haku began coughing up blood in Spirited Away, after all). It can occasionally be somewhat psychologically and visually intense. The Cyclops reside in a room of vivid oranges, a stage that’s reminiscent of the sacrificial pit from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A furnace rages quietly in the background and Cyclops are stacked on the walls as far as the camera lets us see. It’s a striking image, one that I never forgot, even as I caught the snippet of the movie while channel surfing many years ago. The city has a kind of crowded, wispy quality to it that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Yoshitaka Amano illustration.
The art direction in this movie is impeccable, and why shouldn’t it be? Marc Caro was also the art director. His visual style is sort of like H.R. Giger if he wasn’t obsessed with lizards and breasts and penises. Everything in the movie looks like it was designed so well and so thoroughly that there’s no question that it belongs in that world. And what a world it is. The city exists in some kind of pseudo-storybook land, updated to the industrial age. It lives in a sort of neverland where you can’t quite pin down just what time period it’s supposed to be. It’s part-modern, part-turn-of-the-century, part-I-don’t-know-what. If you took away the amazing art direction of this movie, I really wonder how much you’d have left.
Which I suppose is a problem. How much should we let a movie slide by on its own visuals and slick design? Certainly there are directors out there that are known for their unique signature they leave on a movie. Tim Burton probably wouldn’t get work if it wasn’t for the fact that he is known for crafting dark, gothic atmospheres and has a penchant for modern fantasy. Tim Burton is as much his directing style as he is his “look.” And lord knows he’s tried to skate by on just his look. Hell, that’s half his filmography. Someone care to explain Mars Attacks!? It can definitely be a danger to rely heavily on an art style while making a movie, which is possibly why Jeunet cut loose from his collaborator after this film. And why Caro has only now returned to film, with a sci-fi movie called Dante01 to come out in the future possibly maybe.
Thematically, there seems to be some obvious references to regaining one’s youthful innocence. Krank leads a miserable, unhappy existence because he can’t dream. It’s made him into a bitter, withered old coot that’s no fun to be around. He has the clones recite to him their dreams, which are full of happy, fanciful imagery. And indeed, the clones are generally happy-go-lucky guys. One may be a full-grown (and then some) man, but he has the heart of an innocent child that shines through his gruff exterior. It’s this that seems to resonate with the world-weary Miette, who’s ironically a child. There’s definitely some statement trying to be said by placing a child-like man and an adult-like child together. And even more about the corruption of innocence creeping just around the corner. There’s without a doubt some sexual tension that develops between One and Miette that is thankfully defused in one of the most adorable and heartfelt moments of the movie. And Jeunet’s fetish with water returns yet again. It’s not as ridiculous as it was in Delicatessen or later on in Alien Resurrection, but damn. Things are damp. And the water’s some strange sort of pea-soup green.
By the way, cinematography fans, I hope you like extreme angles.
To speak of the acting, I think it’s fair to say Jeunet and Caro casted as much on how odd a person looked as they did on actual acting talent. There are some distinctive, strange people in this movie. People that will give you nightmares if you’re used to the airbrushed, nip/tucked aesthetic of Hollywood. Some of these people just will never be attractive. Ever. (You know who you are.) But even so, the acting’s not bad at all. Ron Perlman gives probably my favorite performance of his as the lovable lummox One. He’s so innocent and stalwart and noble in his own way that it’s impossible not to cheer for him. And it’s more impressive that Perlman delivered all his lines phonetically, not understanding a lick of French. He’s not alone in carrying the movie, however. Judith Vittet gives an impressive performance for one so young, but it’s tempered by the fact that Miette has a rather limited range most of the time. 90% of the movie just calls for her to react with detached aloofness. Which, to her credit, she nails. But at the point in the movie where she has to cry, it looks totally forced and sort of took me out of the movie for a moment. Special mention must be made of Dominique Pinon who, a veteran Jeunet/Caro actor, plays multiple roles and looks like he’s having the time of his fucking life. The clones are bumbling, sleepy-headed comedy relief, and Pinon got a lot of laughs from me from the disconcerting way he was able to play off of himself and contort his face to shapes that should not be possible. Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet do a great job as the Octopus, looking so much alike that I find it hard to believe they’re NOT real conjoined twins. Their tight-lipped, beady-eyed bullying creates a great minor villain for the film, especially when Daniel Emilfork is busy dressing like Santa and screaming at toddlers instead of doing anything really evil (funniest scene in the movie, BTW).
The real crime about this movie is that it’s so strange and specialized, most people won’t like it. It doesn’t quite have the sleeper mass appeal that Amelie does. You can’t sneak this one by your parents in hopes they’ll find it to be a charming gem. I tried. You can’t have a group of friends over and say, “Hey, let’s pop in City of the Lost Children!” Well, maybe I could. But I hang out with freaks. Most of you reading this will probably end up thinking it’s too artsy and pretentious and just plain kooky. The worst thing about City of the Lost Children is that if you’re one of the ENLIGHTENED few that cherishes it, you’ll have a hard time finding someone to enjoy it with. You can’t bring it up in a conversation about your favorite movies without getting strange looks and requests to explain “what that one is about.” But, really, if it were considered a great populist work of art like E.T. or X-Men 3, would it have the same appeal? Isn’t half the fun of liking a movie like this saying, “Oh, I like City of the Lost Children” in a crowd of people and sounding like an intellectual windbag? Part of me wishes everyone loved this movie, but the other part of me hoards it in my heart like Gollum with the Ring. This movie is my Preciousssssssssssss }:3