The world wasn’t really sure what to make of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s follow up to the award winning Delicatessen (1991). When The City of Lost Children (aka La Cité des enfants perdus) was released in 1995, the unanimous reception was one of abject befuddlement and uncertainty. Revisiting the film almost twenty years later, however, allows a fresh perspective to be attained; one of awe at the prescience of the world it created, along with a sense that this may well be a misunderstood masterpiece.
Caro and Jeunet brought several actors from their breakthrough feature with them for The City of Lost Children; most notably Dominique Pinon and Jean-Claude Dreyfus, but it was a member of the art department who would become one of the most significant additions to the team. Jean Rabasse worked as a model conceptionist on Delicatessen, but he was promoted to art director and co-production designer (a role he shared with Caro) when he became involved with City. Together they built a world; one which evoked the writing of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and J. M. Barrie, yet shot through a madman’s lens.
The two primary locations used in the film are an unnamed city and an offshore rig, both of which are infested by the most nefarious and underhand beings imaginable. A warm introduction in which Father Christmas visits a young boy, quickly turns into a demented nightmare as a succession of intoxicated, sweaty Santas emerge from the chimney, accompanied by a bug eyed reindeer that shits wetly upon the floor. Amidst the boy’s cries, the reality crumbles; the first of many sojourns into the darkness that is prevalent throughout the feature.
An old man awakens with a scream that sets off a chain reaction amongst a family of clones and monsters. Krank (the superb Daniel Emilfork) has been stealing the dreams of children. He is a creation not of human born, and so cannot dream and is instilled with an acute fear of ageing and death. His skittish, narcoleptic brothers (all played by Dominique Pinon) are kept in line by the diminutive, but intimidating Martha (Mireille Mossé). This family is observed, and occasionally dictated to, by Irvin (Louis Trintignant) a brain which floats in a luminescent tank, equipped with the necessary paraphernalia which allow him to speak and hear.
As ragged orphans pick pockets on the smoke filled streets, a carnival barker announces his prize act; a towering brute of a strongman named One (Ron Perlman, who didn’t speak a word of French, but was fed his lines phonetically by the directors). When the barker is killed by a shadowy assailant, One sits fearful in his trailer, watching over his adopted little brother. The imposing figures of the secret police, whose sensory abilities have been modified to allow heightened capabilities, particularly in the realm of sound, descend upon him. They find and kidnap the child, taking him to the rig, leaving One enraged and determined to find him.
One becomes involved with a group of young roustabouts who steal relentlessly on behalf of the Octopus, a sinister set of Siamese twins (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet). Initially dragged in as the muscle on a heist which they have orchestrated, he absconds with Miette (Judith Vittet), a fairytale princess lost among the doldrums of the damned.
Everybody’s looking for something in The City of Lost Children, happiness, redemption, memory, wealth or peace; each character is bound on their own personal mission. The way in which Caro and Jeunet weave them together is a delicate, intricate dance. Angelo Badalamenti’s score is one of his finest; drenched in Gallic influences, it creates an atmosphere as engrossing and tight as the sarcophagi in which Krank places his captive infants.
All of this is framed within a universe that, to a contemporary viewer seems somewhat more comfortable and familiar than it may have done in 1995. This is the world of Steampunk; of Bioshock. This is a land akin to the one spun by China Mieville in his Bas Lag series of novels; a visual cacophony of brass and wood, of copper and steel. Steam and moisture permeate every pore of this film. Clockwork contraptions and thaumaturgy combine in a beautiful machination of the bizarre. This phantasmagoria is an otherworldly delight the likes of which Tim Burton would give his right arm to create. There are shades of Gilliam and Jodorowsky amidst the madness, but this is very much Caro and Jeunet’s sickly paradise.
Every shot is a masterfully composed examination of the nooks and crannies which would often be overlooked by other filmmakers yet are pushed to the forefront via angular, obscure framing. Grotesque close ups of bulbous faces and sweaty brows only serve to emphasise the humidity and dampness which emanate from the screen.
With humour, darkness and suspense distributed in equal measure, this is a European folk tale of old, told through a contemporary perspective. The Brothers Grimm operating out of a defunct laboratory by a crumbling shipyard. There are more oddities and contraptions lying around than you’d find described on a recent Tom Waits album, and this makes the world so much more engrossing and rich.
The unique colour palate, a mixture of greens and burgundies, adds greatly to fantastical nature of the aesthetic, whilst also taking the location to a plain of its own. Red is interjected only in scenes of danger or corruption, such as the sermon like meeting of the secret police, or the barroom seduction of One.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costume design is his best work outside of The Fifth Element, and his mix of nautical ruffian and fantasy being is the perfect look to ensure that the film remains casually timeless. Only strands of relatively primitive CGI are a giveaway as to the film’s chronological anchor, but they are moderate and not overused.
It is somewhat of a tragedy that The City of Lost Children made little to no impact upon release. Roger Ebert was polite, but dismissive of what he felt was a disjointed and narratively poor affair. These sentiments were echoed by The New York Times critic Stephen Holden. It may have had occasional lapses in structural delivery, but with so much to look at along the way, it would be hard to begrudge the ride taking a little longer than normal.
We only remember fragments of even our favourite dreams; The City of Lost Children was a beautiful dream that we forgot too soon.