Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Jean-Pierre Jeunet (1995)

2. The City of Lost Children 
La cité des enfants perdus
Co-directed with Marc Caro

“Delicatessen” attracted enough of an audience around the world that Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro were able to move forward with the project they originally wanted to make in the first place. When “The City of Lost Children” came out, it was hailed as a masterpiece in some circles. While clearly indebted to other works – such as German expressionism, European sci-fi comics, and the films of Terry Gilliam – Jeunet's instant cult classic would become a clear influence on future video games, anime, and music videos. Despite the cult following and stylistic impact Jeunet and Caro's movie would have, “The City of Lost Children” isn't discussed very often today. Even with its slight retreat from the minds of weirdo cinema fans, the film remains as impressive today as it was in 1995.

In the waters outside a strange city, a mad scientist named Krank lives on an abandoned oil platform. He orders his minions – a collection of clones, a dwarf wife, a brain in a jar – to retrieve lost children from the city. After capturing them, he attempts to steal the youngsters' dreams, as the scientist is unable to dream himself. Among the stolen children is Denree, the adopted little brother of One, a circus strongman. In order to rescue Denree, One will team up with Miette, a young girl who picks pockets for a cruel pair of conjoined twins. Together, they form a unique bond, seeking to rescue all of the lost children.

In order to make a film about dreams, Jeunet and Caro have crafted an intoxicatingly surreal motion picture. “City of Lost Children” sets out its intention in the opening scene. The camera pans over snowy fields outside a window and children's toys on a shelf, leading up to an infant child's encounter with Santa Claus. Yet then more Santas fill the room. One drinks alcohol, the other cradles the child threateningly. To end the scene, a reindeer shits on the floor. We hard cut to Krank's screaming face, bawling like a frightened child. Throughout the film, Krank longs for the simplicity and sweetness of children's dreams. He finds this more and more difficult to attain. Much the same way we're all nostalgically hungry for the seemingly simpler days of our youth. Within the same film, we see children kidnapped, abused, and manipulated by cruel adults. Which suggests that the pureness of childhood, that Krank and many others search for, never existed in the first place.

Visually, “The City of Lost Children” builds upon “Delicatessen's” aesthetic in a very clear way. It's easy to imagine the apartment building from Jeunet's previous film existing in this film's titular city. Both are characterized by an amber, rusted brown color palette. (Though Jeunet and Caro punctuate “City” with burst of neon green.) Everything appears old, rusted, leftovers from the turn of the century. This is most evident in the underwater diving suit used in one key scene. Yet this is clearly a science fiction setting, a surreal world different from own, with technology unavailable in our present. “City of Lost Children” is more fable then hard sci-fi but the director still creates a story outside of time, both retro and futuristic.

That retro atmosphere is most clearly present in the role sideshow performers play in the story. Mr. One is an old-style strongman, introduced breaking chains just by flexing his muscles. One of the villains in the film – one of many adults attempting to abuse children – is the Octopus. Conjoined twins, they are cast offs from a circus. An associate of their's is also from the circus, who commands a collection of uniquely talented fleas with his organ grinder. Not to mention the dwarfs and clown-like clones that also factor into the plot. By purposely recalling turn-of-the-century circus culture, “The City of Lost Children” successfully cements a tone that is both grotesque and whimsical.

Another element that intentionally recalls older stories is the clan of pick-pocket kids, employed by a selfish adult. Combined with the sooty, decay city setting, the film gains a purposely Dickensian mood. At the center of this story is Miette, played by Judith Vittet. Vittet summons an astonishingly strength to play the young girl. Despite only being a child, the character is jaded and cynical. At story's beginning, she's certain that no one can be trusted. That everyone is just waiting to rip you off. Through this journey to rescue the kidnapped children, she rediscovers her own sense of innocence. Vittet never hits a false note, playing the part as honestly and fully formed as possible.

There's many things to like about “The City of Lost Children” but the relationship between the two main characters may be my favorite . Ron Perlman plays One, the strongman. Perlman, you'll notice, is not a French actor. He had to learn his lines phonetically. Despite the language barrier, he delivers a nuanced, emotional performance. Though he towers over everyone else, Perlman's One isn't much more then a child himself. He frequently talks in the third person, speaking in short, simplistic sentences. So One is a child in a man's body, while Miette is a child with an adult's mind. Together, they compliment one another. This bond is best displayed when the two hold each other under a blanket, to keep warm through the night. Any potentially creepy subtext is dismissed by a deft approach, making sure the audience understands that both characters are innocents. By the end, they've formed a family of their own.

This idea of arrested development extends to the story's villains. Krank, though a mad scientist who kidnaps babies, is prone to child-like outburst of emotions. His temper tantrums – after a dream becomes a nightmare or a Santa themed dress-up session goes wrong – are petulant and whining. His collection of clones – Dominique Pinon playing seven different roles – all have a child-like mentality. In order to avoid trouble, one of the clones makes up a rambling anecdote, like a kid trying to worm his way out of trouble. The brain in the jar is a frequently ignored superego while the dwarf is an overly naturing mother figure, all complacence in the kidnapping of the kids. These are bad people yet Jeunet's baths them in sympathetic neurosis and absurdist humor, making them interesting and likable.

Just like his debut, “The City of Lost Children” is a film of boundless imagination. Among the other grotesques and innocence are other bizarre characters. Such as a cult of “cyclops,” men who willingly pluck out one eye and replace it with a cybernetic visor. Maybe the most impressive of all the film's sets is the Cyclops' lair, a huge underground complex where men sit in cascading rows, up against the wall. (Cult movie fans may notice Francois Hadji-Lazaro – Gnaghi from “Cemetery Man” - among the Cyclops.) The Cyclops are undone by another unique character. Jean-Claude Dreyfus returns from “Delicatessen.” Marcello the organ grinder, a pathetic alcoholic who loves his fleas, is the polar opposite of the beastly butcher Dreyfus played previously. Marcello's flea deliver tiny viles of green liquid, a drug that drives its victims into a murderous rage. Again, Marcello is sympathetic, a man forced by fate to do wicked things.

In “Delicatessen,” Jeunet and Caro frequently stringed together impressive sequences, engineering ludicrous series of events to connect divergent plot points. “City” only features one such scene but it's memorable. A flea bounces from a series of animal hosts – a pair of humping dogs, a skittering sewer rat – setting off a series of events that begin with a car striking a fire hydrant, includes a collection of topless strippers fleeing a building, and concludes with a boat colliding with a dock. Animals remain chaotic neutral agents of nature throughout the film. A bird appears at the last minute to neatly wrap up any dangling plot points.

Yet not all of the film's impressive scenes are so manic. Others are more melancholy. A fog of green mists floats through the city, instilling a series of strange memories in several strangers before finding the correct hosts. The film's various themes, of confused memories and longing for lost childhood, collide in the final act. The conclusion has the hero and the villain fighting inside a dream, characters aging in opposite directions while the room around them shifts strangely. It's an almost inscrutable conclusion, a powerfully surreal piece of filmmaking, a dream/nightmare that must be approached intuitively to be understood.

Providing the music for the film is Angelo Badalamenti. Considering Badalamenti is most famous for his collaborations with David Lynch, it made sense for him to score a similarly surreal film like this. Badalamenti's music is a gorgeous mixture of sweeping strings, plucking harps, and mournful woodwind with droning organs representing the circus-esque villains. Badalamenti also composes the vocal theme song, “Who Will Take My Dreams Away?,” sang by Marianne Faithfull. Faithfull sings of friendship and evil being defeated but also notes the end of life and how irreplaceable lost loved ones are. It's an enchanting collection of music, perfectly suited to the film.

“The City of Lost Children” would go on to become a landmark steampunk film, though it features none of the billowing smokestacks or mechanical top hats you associate with that genre. You can see its fingerprints on future films and video games. (Including, interestingly enough, a PlayStation game directly adapted from the film.) This is befitting such a fiercely original, enchanting motion picture. The film successfully juggles several tones – funny, whimsical, unnerving – while making an interesting point about nostalgia and adulthood. It's also visually arresting the entire time. Though a convoluted script prevents it from being a masterpiece, it's still a deeply impressive film, easily on the director's best. [Grade: A-]

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