We continue Jean-Pierre Jeunet month by talking about his second film, and what would become his last directorial collaboration with Marc Caro (and also the last time we see Caro in an extras role). It brings up the question on where to go after Delicatessen, and then asking ourselves how deep this rabbit hole can go – This is The City Of Lost Children.
Set in what I could best describe as like a Steam-Punk-Fantasy-French interpretation of a fictitious Venice, our story revolves around several groups of people, which includes two main protagonists and three sets of antagonists. The Protagonists are One (a Carnival strongman played by Ron Perlman) and an unfazed street orphan called Miette (or ‘Crumb’ in english, played by child actress Judith Villet). Our antagonists consist primarily of a Mad Scientist called Krank, who is a clone of a vanished Scientist, living and working with the clones of 2 other scientists, and a brain in a machine on an off-store oil rig. Through the clones (played by Dominique Ponan and Mirielle Mosse) he does business dealings with a cult called Cyclops, who make their followers blind in order to allow them to hear better and wear a electronic visual aids (which Krank provides for them in exchange for children that they kidnap for him), and then…there’s the sinister pair of Siamese Twins (nicknamed The Octopus) who run a Thieves racket with orphaned children as their ’employees’ (and possible kidnap victims). When One’s ‘little brother’ Denree gets kidnapped by the Cyclops (In order to sell to Krank), he seeks help in finding where they went, which leads him to the Octopus’ Racket. When they see that he could move a giant safe that they want to rob (after lifting their copy of said giant safe), they hire him to do the job with the Orphans. But when He and Miette get separated from the other children during the heist, that’s when the adventure really begins.
Now to talk about the make up of this film.
First of all…what a world…What if I told you that this film combines both CGI and practical creation? And that much of the practical creation and effects are…the City itself? Most of that is a set! These days there are green screens everywhere. Many films rely on them to save time, and in the process the presentation of fantasy worlds are prone to looking about as organic as zero-carb noodles when compared to this. Jeunet and Caro’s crew built much of this film’s world. Also the CGI is oddly obscure – usually presenting a flea that plays a pivotal role in the plot. Artistically, this film is absolutely masterful! Along with its stylised cinematography that many-a-times, focuses on faces and their emotions. And over 25 years later this whole thing still looks amazing. I’ll also mention the costumes created by Fashion Designer Jean Paul Gaultier, providing a nostalgic yet eye-popping appeal.
The Acting is excellent, bordering from realistic reactions to the kind of cartoon/comic reactions that Delicatessen had. The kind that don’t get cheesy, but are in fact really endearing and fun. The casting, once again, has as much to do with everybody having the right kind of face. Especially the Villains. Daniel Emilfork (who plays Krank) has a very, very distinct character to his face. There are very few people who can resemble a Vulture, and he did, and it was well incorporated into his tragic role as a self-inflicted boogieman stealing and destroying the dreams of children. This film also sees the return of Jean-Claude Dreyfus (Clapet The Butcher in Delicatessen) as a circus performer called Marcello (who runs the Flea Circus). Dreyfus’ acting and make up is so good that the menace he brought to Clapet was actually gone here, and he was much more approachable on screen. In other words, less scary, more like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard Of Oz. Everyone delivers a great performance, and it’s clear how creative the directors were, as they were working with children, and obviously Ron Perlman, who didn’t speak French but delivered all of his lines perfectly. Oh, and did I mention that Dominique Pinon plays 5 characters in this film? Four of them are clones, and we experience a hilarious “Happy Birthday” scene because of it. The kind to freak your friends out while they watch it with you for the first time, and making them think you’re mad.
The characters…Yeah, this is amazing. Much like the characters in Delicatessen, you feel like they have been on screen for much longer, or have seen them in a TV show rather than a movie. The Older Man travelling with Young girl dynamic has been around for a long time, and the on-screen chemistry between One and Miette is very good. I also enjoy the loud, quirky and morbid scenes involving the Clones and, much like the choice of faces, the pure aesthetics of characters stand out, with few, if any, being too forgettable (outside of, perhaps, some of the Cyclops and the other Orphaned children). The Octopus are also the stuff of nightmares in their own right – bordering along with the Other-Mother in Coreline.
The story, especially the first five minutes, made me realise that I could have included this film on my Christmas List, due to the scenes where Krank was trying to dream (Yeah, Santa is rarely ever this frightening). The first time I watched this, I felt like it was all over the place. But watching it again, I realised how simple the structure is, and how well the plot flowed. There is a small hint of Alice In Wonderland to this, in the sense that One’s Little Brother Denree quietly takes on the role of the White Rabbit while One is Alice, Miette is the Cheshire Cat and Krank is The Queens Of Hearts. At the same time the villains play symbolic roles in the maturity of a child. As the child grows up, he/she is bled dry by the system in place (The Octopus), Promised the world (Cyclops) and robbed of their dreams (Krank). Other commentators have suggested that this film shows the dual nature of capitalism, as Science, Religion and the Wealthy take advantage of the innocent. But how you interpret it (or word it) is up to you.
Sadly, due to the passing of Carlos d’Alessio shortly before production began, Jeunet and Caro were without the composer of Delicatessen here…so…The City Of Lost Children’s music was instead composed by Angelo Badalamenti…yes. That Angelo Badalamenti! David Lynch’s primary go-to composer, and someone who knows how to make a movie, TV show or Video Game sound dark, tense, broody, and above all else, dreamy and morbidly optimistic. For me, this combination is like a dream team, and it works wonderfully in this film. d’Alessio is missed, but Badalamenti did a fantastic job here.
Would I recommend The City Of Lost Children? Yes I would. No doubt. This is a really good fantasy film with multiple layers, and is very beautifully shot and presented with a metric-ton of imagination. When you consider that this film is one of the main inspirations from the 2007 video game Bio Shock, that tells you how strong the source material is.
CGI/Special Effects: *****