Circus strongman One (Ron Perlman) looks after Denree (Joseph Lucien), a young boy he refers to as “little brother”. When Denree is kidnapped by the Cyclops gang, who rely on artificial lenses to see with, One goes to the rescue.
He is aided by Miette (Judith Vittet), a member of a gang of street urchins who undertake daring robberies at the behest of the bitter and vindictive Pieuvre sisters (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet). The Pieuvres are Siamese twins who are nicknamed the Octopus on account of their combined multiplicity of arms.
The Pieuvre sisters respond to Miette’s departure from the gang by employing Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), the former circus master who used to exhibit them as sideshow freaks, to track them down. Marcello is assisted by his fleas, who are trained to inject their victims with a small vial attached to their mandibles which contains a mind-control drug.
Denree has been sold to Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a crazed inventor who lives on an oil-rig-like construction surrounded by mines. With the help of Madamoiselle Bismuth (Mireille Mossé) and her cloned children (all played by Dominique Pinon) and Uncle Irvin, a brain in a fishtank with an ancient camera for an eye (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintigant), Krank is stealing children’s dream as part of an experiment in reverting the ageing process.
The clones, frustrated by Krank’s controlling behaviour, are obsessed by which one of them is the original. Uncle Irvin plays on their disaffections and persuades one of them to throw a canister overboard containing a green mist which communicates the history of Krank’s bizarre hideaway and the misdeeds carried out there.
The canister eventually falls into the hands of The Diver (Pinon again) who realises with horror that he has a connection to Krank and his collaborators. As Krank, impressed by Denree’s resilience, attempts to steal the young boy’s dreams, The Diver and One and Miette converge on his hideaway …
The most commonly applied critical epithet during the Jeunet and Caro years was “the French version of Terry Gilliam”. It’s an understandable comparison, and the Gilliamesque style of grotesquery and exaggerated visuals in nowhere more apparent than in ‘The City of Lost Children’. But there’s more than just a touch of Gilliam about the project. Allow me to indulge in the lazy-assed it’s-X-meets-Y school of film writing that I usually disparage:
If Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Tod Browning, Jules Verne and the Brothers Grimm locked themselves away for a couple of years, drank tequila shots until their minds started to bleed and then did copious quantities of LSD, they’d probably make something almost as weird as ‘The City of Lost Children’. I mean, come on, you’ve read my synopsis right? Circus performers, fleas that inject mind-control drugs, conjoined villainesses, dream-theft and a freakin’ brain in a freakin’ fish tank. All that malarkey about what’s behind the radiator in ‘Eraserhead’ kind of looks like a Ken Loach slice of social realism in comparison.
And if that parade of purple prose isn’t enough to make the point, check out these random images:
There is much that connects the world of ‘The City of Lost Children’ to the world of ‘Delicatessen’, not least the amount of familiar faces. Pinon and Dreyfus return in significantly different roles (Dreyfus’s transformation, from the steely and brutal Clapet to the twitchy and nervy Marcello, is astounding), while Ticky Holgado and Rufus round out the nucleus of what would become the Jeunet Regulars; elsewhere, Marc Caro makes a cameo (he also shows up in ‘The Bunker of the Last Gunshots’ and ‘Delicatessen’). Ambiguities in period and location also prove reminiscent of ‘Delicatessen’, as does set design.
Two things mark out ‘The City of Lost Children’ as different, though. The first is perspective. There were only two children in ‘Delicatessen’, both supporting characters and neither fulfilling much of a narrative role beyond a couple of pranks – one of which takes the viewer into the milieu of Howard Vernon’s snail-eating misanthrope, the other of which foils the postman’s attempt on Louison’s life in the finale. ‘The City of Lost Children’ – as the title suggests – is keys into childhood and children’s perceptions from the outset. The first scene opens with a snowy vista through a misty window. The camera glides back and we see a teddy bear and a wind-up toy on the windowsill. A child lies in a cot, a mobile leisurely turning above him. It’s a chocolate box portrayal of childhood: idyllic, evocative; it almost flirts with schmaltz. Then a rope clatters down the chimney into the hearth. A figure dressed as Santa emerges. Followed by another. And another. And another. Soon the room is filled with Santas. A wide-angle lens distorts and exaggerates perception. The child starts crying. A reindeer defecates. It’s quickly revealed as a dream sequence … only, in direct contravention of accepted movie logic (a character waking from a nightmare is restored to normalcy), the dreamer wakes to imprisonment, a bulky contraption strapped to their head, their dream poisoned into nightmare by the repulsive Krank.
Adults and adult considerations inform ‘Delicatessen’: commerce and the corruption of power (Clapet keeps the apartment block residents under his thumb by making sure they’re continually in debt to him); activism and resistance (the Troglodytes and the raiding-party style forays above ground); sex and relationships (Madamoiselle Pluisse’s benefits as Clapet’s mistress, the postman’s lecherous designs on Julie, Louison and Julie’s tentative romance); not to mention murder, cannibalism and suicide. Certainly, ‘The City of Lost Children’ has its share of darkness, violence and threat (Marcello’s turning of one of the Cyclops gang on a comrade is chilling; more so later when, his serum-wielding fleas now in the hands of the Octopus, One is briefly the victim and menticide and the sisters turn him against Miette), but the principle characters – and their interactions – are informed by a more innocent sensibility. Denree and Miette are children themselves, albeit all-too-cognisant of the adult world’s wrongness in Miette’s case. One is a man-child, so guileless that he refers to himself in the third person, considers Denree his “little brother” even though the lad is his adopted son, and – when a call-girl tries to inveigle him with her charms, bawls pitifully at the thought that he’s neglected Miette. (Miette’s name translates as “crumb”, which One adopts as a nickname. It’s little details like this that paint One and Miette’s developing relationship as innocent and unspoiled.)
The other difference is structural. Apparently, Jeunet and Caro had ‘The City of Lost Children’ in mind for over a decade before they had a chance to make it. Maybe they had lived in the world of their imagination for so long that they understood every corner of it; knew their characters’ backstories as intimately as their own lives. Whatever the reason, the nifty construction of ‘Delicatessen’ is replaced here by a disjointed and often chaotic approach that pays so little heed to narrative convention that it makes Jodorowsky’s ‘El Topo’ look like an adherent of the Robert McKee model.
The characters in ‘Delicatessen’, while eccentric, were still lovingly sketched and allowed enough screen time to establish themselves. Hurriedly exposited interrelationships serve to introduce and define many of the supporting characters in ‘The City of Lost Children’, with bizarro visuals and OTT performances replacing characterisation. Apart from the revelation that the hapless Marcello was once the Pieuvre sisters’ circus master and the self-evident business about The Diver’s connection to Krank, backstory seems to have been stolen along with the children’s dreams. Exposition, on the rare occasions that Jeunet and Caro bother with it, is purely visual.
Is this a criticism? For many films, yes it would be. Indeed, there are enough instances in Gilliam’s filmography where mise-en-scene has become elevated so far beyond considerations of narrative, characterisation and the necessity of the audience’s emotional engagement with what’s happening onscreen that the end product becomes swamped by visual excess, lunatic acting performances (Jonathan Pryce in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ for example) and set-pieces so determined to be crazy, energetic and cartoonish that they actually come off as grindingly tiring.
However, Jeunet and Caro achieve a small miracle with ‘The City of Lost Children’. Throughout its hour and three quarters, it constantly threatens to tip over into a quagmire of everything it could possibly get wrong; and yet – in One’s poignant relationship with Miette; in the surprisingly affecting scenes between the clones (I’ve never seen pure slapstick played with so much heart; and all credit must surely go to the incredibly talented Dominique Pinon); in the creation of a world that is so perfectly realised and bustles so convincingly with life – Jeunet and Caro spin their surreal and sometimes quite perplexing fairy tale around a genuinely engaging emotional core.
My wife watched ‘The City of the Lost Children’ with me last night; it was the first time she’d seen the film. Her immediate response: “That was utterly bizarre but darkly delightful.” Amen; just like any good fairy tale should be.