‘The City of Lost Children’

by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro


My assumption is that most of my readers have at this point noticed my love towards surreal, strange and visual films. If I remember correctly, this is where it all began. The City of Lost Children – a film of dreams in more ways than one – holds a truly special place in my heart.

When I first experienced The City of Lost Children (original title La cité des enfants perdus) it fascinated me immensely in many respects. Not before had I on film witnessed such creatively dreamlike confusion, wondrous designs or fascinatingly weird characters. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, it tells the story of a callous man who is aging rapidly due to his inability to dream. This premise brings to mind an ancient fairy tale, although not all have happy endings.

Krank is the man’s name and he is played by the late Daniel Emilfork who has an excellent face for villainous roles; this is pretty much the only things he’s known for, hence why he died much, much too soon. Krank calls himself a scientist and he has a base on an offshore oil platform where he has created a machine to steal the dreams of the children from the nearby city. On the rig he lives with his idiotic cloned “brothers” (all played by the great Dominique Pinon), his kindly dwarf “mother” (Mireille Mossé) and his wise but snarky uncle Irwin (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a brain that has been put on life support in some sort of robotic fish tank. Surreal it certainly is, but many of Krank’s gadgets, including Irwin’s tank, have a great steampunk look to them. To quote Ebert: “It takes place not so much in the future as in a sort of parallel time zone, where there are recognizable elements of our world, violently rearranged.”

The wonderful Ron Perlman plays a super-strong circus entertainer named One, a man with large muscles, a small brain but a big heart. His brother is kidnapped by a group of one-eyed hitmen, The Cyclopses, who answer to Krank. Failing to save his brother, One ends up with a small group of orphans led by the courageous Miette (Judith Vittet). These orphans all work for a mutated creature made out of two women, known as The Octopus, played by Odile Mallet and Geneviève Brunet.

As Miette escapes from The Octopus and joins One – whom she starts to really like – in his quest to rescue his brother from The Cyclopses, The Octopus gets “her” old owner, a freak show proprietor named Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) to go after them. Marcello has a secret weapon – a sort of drug he has invented and put in the proboscis of a mind-controlled flea, and if the flea bites you, the drug enters your body making you angry and violent. Also a very strange idea, but it fits the surrealist society the film is set in handsomely. The cast also consists of Rufus, who plays The Octopus’ sickly slave, Sergé Merlin as the fanatical Cyclops leader and Ticky Holgado as One’s adoptive father.

The storyline invlolving the relationship between One and Miette is what makes people think the film has pedophilic undertones. I, one the other hand, have always viewed it as a brother-sister relationship and isn’t that the whole point? One losing his little brother but finding a little sister? This is how the relationship between them is intended to be interpreted and it serves as heartwarming escapism as we venture to a city that’s otherwise grim and hostile – albeit designed beautifully by Jean Rabasse.

The City of Lost Children is a darker and less comedic film than Jeunet and Caro’s previous film Delicatessen, but simultaneously, it is far more dashing. It is set in a world that resembles our own and yet it doesn’t. A world that functions like ours in certain ways, but in other ways it is purely bizarre and bewildering. A world where normal people are difficult to find. Many things are irregular and hardly make sense, but these are the things that are beautiful about the film, as well as the way the melancholic, gorgeous-looking city is shot, set to a wonderfully eerie score by Angelo Badalamenti.

One of the best scenes in the film is a scene I love to call the “Chain Reaction Scene”; something that shows up in most films by Jeunet. In this case it is the destruction of a dock, which is caused through a series of accidents, beginning with merely a child’s tear on a cobweb. It is scenes like this one that prove just how admirably intelligent and inventive these two crazy filmmakers can be.

The universe of The City of Lost Children is a twisted but inviting one. It makes little sense to us, but presumably does to the people who reside there. And Jeunet et Caro bring us on an unforgettable journey into it, which might leave some viewers confused and apalled, but it will leave most viewers wishing to see more and explore this world further. The City of Lost Children is a delicately crafted film with great acting, a great soundtrack and a great-looking world to engage its audience. It is delightful, unique and forever one of my all-time favourite films.

One (Perlman) brings Miette (Vittet) along on his search for his brother.