“He believed a single teardrop could save him”
When a film opens with an array of Santa Clauses turning a child’s hopeful dream into an ominous nightmare, you know you are in for a treat. From the very first moment, The City of Lost Children (French: La cité des enfants perdus) prepares its viewers for a steampunk fairy-tale of distorted lenses and reversed roles.
In their 1995 collaboration, French self-taught director Jean Pierre Jeunet and filmmaker/cartoonist Marc Caro failed to impress the Cannes jury, yet managed to create a point of reference for all fantasy lovers, gaining more enthusiasts as years go by. True to the conceptual fundamentals of the Grimm Brothers that a fairy-tale emerges from darkness, The City of Lost Children is an amalgam of infinite imagination, tangible symbolism and a glint of innocence, which we glimpse as we sleepwalk through its mad world.
In a nameless and timeless port city, the blind Cyclopes crawl the streets, kidnapping young children for Krank (Daniel Emilfork) in exchange for an artificial eye or an ear. Unable to dream on his own, Krank harvests children’s dreams to reverse his fast aging. He is aided by Irvin, an outspoken brain, Mademoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé) and six childish clones (Dominique Pinon). When his ‘little brother’ gets kidnapped, simple-minded carnival strongman One (Ron Perlman) sets out on a rescue journey. Along the way, he meets a gang of orphans under the care of malicious Siamese sisters, and mind-controlling fleas. He also befriends Miette (Judith Vittet) and an amnesiac diver that holds the key to the surreal mystery.
Four years after their mind-bending masterpiece Delicatessen (1992), the French duo created visuals that surpass triviality and express a new impressionistic ambiguity – all in the form of a strange aesthetic that captivates the eye. Jeunet and Caro’s mise-en-scéne is frighteningly dark, but stylised and carefully interwoven with the plot and its ghoulish characters – in such a way that the smallest of details echoes grandly throughout the story. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to pay attention to the subtitles, and not be carried away by the film’s steampunk set and Jean Paul Gaultier’s entrancing costumes.
The focus is placed predominantly on children, their perspective and importance in leading the story. Adults are demoted to grotesque figures living in a decadent world that is secretly ruled by the actions and reactions of the young protagonists. Among some of the reasons why this film is unlike anything you have ever seen before are: the sharp-witted Miette helping out a monosyllabic giant, a robbery aided by a mouse, a tear causing a massive chain of events, the cruel murder of a Cyclops, and the camera shots seen through the eyes of the fleas.
The film’s special effects subtly blend advanced technology with the presence of underwater survivors, who seem to be straight out of a Jules Verne novel, as well as a hauntingly Dickensian setting. Inspiration is undeniably drawn from Terry Gilliam’s anarchic satire Brazil (1985) and his sci-fi adventure Time Bandits (1981), while the greenish smoke reminds one of the thickening fog in Coppola’s Dracula (1992).
The camerawork tries to capture the realism of the events as it follows the the bumpy trajectory of the plot. The story is exquisitely accompanied by the music of Angelo Badalamenti, who is known for his collaborations with David Lynch in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-92) and Mullholand Drive (2001). Daniel Emilfork exudes an evil scientist’s crazed aura with astonishing finesse, while Perlman rules over emotion. Odile Mallet and Genevieve Brunet deserve a special mention, as their wickedness, immaculate timing and one particular smoking sequence are almost otherworldly.
Though the the French-German-Spanish co-production may seem to rely on its visuals quite heavily, there is a satisfying story for those patient enough to salvage the kernels of friendship, family and innocence. Bear in mind that this film is not meant to inspire and entertain children, but ignite the horror within the adult. Especially for fans of fantasy and dystopia, it is a marvellous gift from two talented filmmakers.
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