The City of Lost Children (‘La Cite des Enfants Perdus’)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, perhaps better known for ‘Delicatessen’ & (‘sans’ Caro) ‘Alien: Resurrection‘, have here created a mini-masterpiece, a film that is not only visually stunning but is also deeply involving, touching, macabre, & probably the most wonderfully inventive & imaginative film I’ve ever seen.

If ever a dream was made real & filmed, then cross-bred with cinematic conventions such as plot & characterisation I think this film would come very close to the end product. This film starts in a child’s dream, has a central theme of dreams, & looks like a dream. It is shot in gritty ‘ultrareal’ locations – crime-ridden, rat-infested, poverty-stricken docks & their surrounding hovels – yet every scene conveys an unreal, dreamlike quality that completely belies it’s setting: much like a dream on screen. The characters are weird & wonderful, a lot of them looking as if they come from a circus freak show (which many do). It could be described as surreal, but in it’s context I don’t think it is: it obeys the internal ‘logic’ of a dream come nightmare where anything & everything is possible.

This film is hard to classify but I think it belongs in the ‘cyber-punk’ sci-fi genre – characterised by a world of advanced technology but also one of decay, hardship & anarchy. However, unlike most films of that ilk (‘Blade Runner’ is the best example), this film rather than being set in the future seems to have gone back in time to the Victorian era. The lifestyles, clothing & poverty of the inhabitants of the docks is very Dickensian, & the advanced technology looks more like weird & wonderful contraptions that could have come straight out of a Jules Verne book. So perhaps this is the so far sole example of the ‘French Victorian Cyber-Punk Sci-Fi’ genre!

There is a host of weird, wonderful & freakish characters here: on a rig in the harbour behind a mine-field live the failed human experiments of a now absent mad inventor’s efforts to create his own family outside of the more traditional methods. Head of the house is a monster of a man named Krank who has aged prematurely due to his inability to dream; there are ½ a dozen midget clones who suffer from somnambulism (here translated as ‘sleeping sickness’); the woman who was meant to be the wife is even smaller; & ‘Uncle Irvine’ is a migraine-ridden disembodied brain that is still able to see, hear & speak.

On the shore there are religious cultists named Cyclopes, who upon joining are fitted with an artificially enhanced eye & ears; evil conjoined twins (who I’m sure were influenced by Cora & Clarice from Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ books); a drunken flea-trainer; a simple-minded strongman named One; his very young omnivorous adopted brother Denree; & a gang of child thieves led by a young girl named Miette – among others.

The Cyclopes capture children under 5 who are then taken to Krank’s rig where they are hooked up to machines along with Krank so he can attempt to experience their dreams. Not surprisingly – except to Krank & his ‘family’ – the dreams are always nightmares, Krank’s quest remains unfulfilled & his premature ageing continues.

When One’s little brother Denree is taken by the Cyclopes he, along with Miette, sets out to find & rescue him.

If this sounds weird & confusing that’s probably because it is! The plot is somewhat convoluted & hard to follow, & the freakishness of a lot of the characters I’m sure many people will find off-putting. On the other hand this is definitely one of those movies which benefits from repeated viewings: it has such richness, depths & attention to detail that you will almost certainly notice something different or view it in a different light every time you watch it.

The sumptuous cinematography is one of the outstanding features of this gem of a film – visually this is stunning: every scene looks like a painting; dark & moody but at the same time vividly colourful.

However, what I most love about this film is it’s wonderfully imaginative inventiveness. There is so much to admire & enjoy here, & I don’t want to spoil things by recounting too many, but there are delightful ideas & tricks here that I doubt I will see anywhere else. Here are a few examples:

A ‘bird’s-eye’ viewpoint is a common thing in film; here Jeunet & Caro give us a ‘flea’s-eye’ view: at several points in the film the action is viewed as if from a flea as it leaps from post to post, hitches a ride on a passing dog then settles in someone’s hair. Wonderfully inventive, & also great SFX.

There are some great tricks with perspective to do with the fact that the Cyclopes can swap their eyes with each other, enabling them to see themselves from another’s viewpoint.

My favourite character(s), the ‘Octopus twins’ as they are known, are wonderful – 1 being with 2 heads, 3 legs & 4 arms all over the place – & have to be seen to be appreciated – especially the rather unique way they have of smoking a cigarette!

In what has become one of my all-time favourite movie sequences, a protracted chain of events is set off by a teardrop flying from a child’s eye & culminates with a huge icebreaker ship smashing the dock – wonderful stuff.

One final note on the dilemna you always have with foreign-language films of dubbed vs. subtitles. Having seen both I still don’t know which I prefer. You lose a lot of the character’s personalities when their voices are done by someone other than the actor – for instance the child who did the English voiceover for Miette was awful, whereas the French actress (Judith Vittet) I thought was superb – & should have a great future. It’s also disconcerting when the actors’ mouths & their words are out of synch. On the other hand having to read subtitles means you aren’t able to see as much of the film itself, which in a film of this visual style & detail is a big disadvantage. Maybe I should just learn French & watch the original language version – this film is so good it’s almost worth doing just for that reason!

This is probably the most difficult review I’ve so far had to do. There is so much to this movie I found it hard to describe, & even as I was writing it all sounded a bit like a load of French arty-farty weirdness. It IS weird, but also wonderful, & if you can get past that or (like me) even enjoy it & the complicated plot you will find a film that is unique, rich, rewarding, refreshing & hugely entertaining. I personally rate this is one of my all-time favourites..

One Comment to “The City of Lost Children (‘La Cite des Enfants Perdus’)”

  1. You probably wrote this forever ago, but thank you. I totally agree with the importance of seeing this in French and not dubbed into English. My favorite scene is when One and Miette are tuckered out and taking a rest on a big net and Miette asks, “what is it like to have a little brother?” and One replies: “It keeps you running.” Thank you also for talking about tidbits of the plot as well as giving us a bit of film theory. This is always the hardest film to recommend to friends. I usually essentialize and say, “It’s about fleas and dreams.”

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