[I just realized it’s 9PM and I haven’t started the capsule reviews for this month. Well, that’s not happening today. Later this week…]
La Cité des Enfants Perdus (City of Lost Children) (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1995)
[originally posted 17Jan2003]
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is an astounding talent, one of France’s true living treasures. Along with his longtime collaborator Marc Caro, he’s created two of the finest films of the nineties, Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. The former is a comedic nightmare, the latter a nightmarish comedy. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one. You’re more likely to be laughing out loud at Delicatessen most of the time.
The story is complex and surreal, and certainly too twisted to relate here. The basic plot is that an old scientist (Daniel Emilfork, likely best remembered by American audiences from Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?), in his quest for youth, has taken up kidnapping children and stealing their dreams. While doing so, he chances to take Denree, the little brother of partially retarded sideshow strongman One (Ron Perlman, recently in Blade II). One, along with Denree’s best friend Mariette (the charming, sassy Judith Vittet) sets off on a quest to discover the location of the scientist’s secret hideout. There is much more to it than this, of course…
The thing about Jeunet’s films that makes them sit apart from the rest of the world is his use of weird cinematographic quirks. Everything in Jeunet’s earlier films is dark, smoggy, with a weird amber sheen overlaid. Natural light is some fabled creation that the characters may have at one point heard about, but it’s obvious they’ve never experienced it. Like Metropolis or Bladerunner, but the viewer doesn’t have to strain his eyes so much. The overall effect is that the images in some way match the weird dada quality of the screenplay; it’s as if the filmmakers are drawing you into the realm of the weird subconsciously as well as throwing plots at you that no normal human being could ever conceive. He also takes pains to cast odd-looking characters, and when they’re less than odd-looking, uses hair and costume styling to make them odd. (I doubt anyone who ever sees this film will be able to watch Ron Perlman as a tough guy again without thinking of this hairdo.)
There is not a step made wrong here. Unlike Delicatessen, which leavens the surreal atmosphere with constant doses of black humor, City of Lost Children is almost relentless in creating its veil of disturbance. The humor to be found herein is always close to that hysterical edge, and often plunges well over the line. The effect is that of looking at the wreck of a glass train through binoculars; the accident itself isn’t enough, all the gory details are revealed for your viewing endurement.
The film became a cult hit almost immediately upon release, and fans of dark film who have somehow never seen this before are likely to recognize a lot of films that have come since on which it has been an obvious influence (Alex Proyas’ Dark City, in retrospect, wears its Jeunet- and Caro-loving heart on its sleeve in many, many ways). Is it that good? Oh, yeah. It’s that good. **** ½