Aug 19 2009

The City of Lost Children

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we take on the strange French fantasy film The City of Lost Children. It looks like Benn and James actually may have a difference of opinion on this one so it’s worth a read for the novelty of that, if nothing else.

La Cité des Enfants Perdus
Year: 1995
Dir.: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Ron Perlman
Genre: Fantasy

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

Following the lead of filmmakers like Leos Carax and Luc Besson and the rest of the Cinema du Look movement, many French films during the nineties emphasized style over substance. The City of Lost Children, while it came slightly later in the timeline of French cinema, is certainly no exception. While the film has a wonderful visual sense and an unusually explorative imagination, it’s slim on story and character to hold it all together.

Put simply, The City of Lost Children is the story of a circus strong man who is trying to rescue his little brother from a mad scientist who steals dreams from children. He does it with the help of Miette, a young girl who becomes a sort of sister figure for him. This is basically the complete extent of the plot. Throughout the movie, we watch the two protagonists go from one place to the other, with little explanation as to why they were there or what they were doing. The conflict is usually there, in the form of someone usually chasing after them. But though the motivations for the main characters are there, there’s something lacking in the overall interest the plot provides. There’s a lot of unnecessary air here, presumably to show off the visuals they spent so much time on but this seems to backfire as simply not enough is really happening to keep most viewer’s interest.

Where the movie does excel though is in its visual style and imagination. The film uses a beautiful color palette that is almost bordering on a sepia monochromatic color scheme. It leans heavily on browns and reds to good effect, making it look very unique for the time period. Composition in the film is always magnificent from shot to shot, it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into framing. As a result there are certainly some stand out moments, including an overhead shot of Ron Perlman’s character hanging from a chain. Wide angle lenses are also used to enhance the bizarre and unusual feel of the film, giving it a distinctly warped aura. The mise en scene of the piece is well attended to, as there’s always a lot going on in frame and it’s well planned. The atmosphere, which is often enhanced by fog, is sufficiently eerie as well. Unfortunately time has taken away some of the uniqueness of the look of the movie, as a well-versed viewer in 2009 can’t help but be reminded of Dark City, which has similarities not only in its cinematography, but also in its art design, characters, and plot. Terry Gilliam’s entire catalog comes to mind, but since his work began long before this film was released it may be that he was an influence on the filmmakers, one of which went on to make the classic, Amelie.

The art direction is certainly imaginative: the word here is bizarre. They found one of the strangest looking actors to play the mad scientist and his workshop is equally whacky. The world is completely surreal. While other movies can often manage to balance the surreal with relatability, this one goes so far off the deep end that it doesn’t feel at all grounded in reality, and therefore loses track of its emotional center quite often.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment though is the theme of dreams. The film doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with dreams. While certainly they are depicted and they are as surreal as expected, it never says anything enlightening about them and doesn’t explore them in any news ways. Films like Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry approach this much better, even if the latter is more of an exploration of memories than dreams it still maintains a dreamlike state even more accurately than City of the Lost Children.

While the visual style is certainly appealing, the story is so lacking that this film manages to often wander into the realm of the boring. For such a fantastical adventure, this should never really be the case. If only there was more variety in the events or a better pace for the structure the film may have been quite enjoyable.

Benn says:

The battle between a film’s appearance and content has silently raged on since the beginning of film, leading people to ask the question: What is more important in a film? Is it how it looks, or what its about? The answer is, as most answers tend to be, a mix of both. Films like The City of Lost Children (or, in it’s native French tongue, La Cite des Enfants Perdus), employs the use of expressionism, allowing the architecture and environment to look as contorted and distorted as the people who inhabit it. In short, expressionism allows a location to become just as important as a film’s actors and plot.

The City of Lost Children begins as a sort of fairytale, with a disembodied voice (literally. The narrator, “Uncle Irvin”, is a brain in a fish tank with phonograph and photographic lens attachments in place of ears and eyes) telling the tale of a brilliant, but tragic scientist who created a midget wife, six cloned “children” (all played by Dominique Pinon), the narrator itself, and superior genius Krank (Daniel Emilfork) who then takes over his creator’s family and oceanic laboratory. Due to his own penchant for evil and his inability to dream, Krank ages at an incredible rate and has taken to kidnapping children in an attempt to hijack their dreams.

Soon after we are introduced to the impoverished carnival strongman One (played by American actor Ron Perlman) and his little adopted brother, who is soon kidnapped by Krank’s cycloptic henchmen. After crossing paths with young pickpocket Miette (Judith Vittet), the duo sets out through the city’s urban labyrinth, evades a series of villains, and eventually confronts Krank and his genetic brood.

Obviously, the visual style of director’s Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet acts as the films greatest strength, as the art direction and cinematography are very similar, if not superior, to other modern day expressionist films, such as Batman, The Crow, Dark City and Delicatessen (also a film by the directorial duo). The city itself is more of a giant set of catacombs made up of alleyways and seaside ports rather than an urban cityscape, illustrating the poverty and desolation of the world within the film. Furthermore, the film exclusively uses dark earth tones, mostly dark green and rust, creating an ambiance that is as beautiful as it is haunting. The film also features steampunk technology and fashion, which mimics the materials and gadgets used in the 19th century and the stories of Jules Verne; there are gear shifts, clunky knobs and levers, horse-drawn carriages, corsets, petticoats and other wardrobe and technological set pieces of the like.

The City of Lost Children focuses much of its time, if not a little too much, on its wide variety of surreal, off-putting characters. Perlman is perfect, not to mention convincing as a Frenchman, as the child-like, gentle, mongoloid strongman, and Vittet works gracefully as his foil as the young, but street-wise and embittered pick pocket. However, it is the supporting actors who gain much attention, as they often act as both characters and set pieces simultaneously. Jeunet makes a point in casting unusual looking actors for these roles as they appear, along with make-up effects (I hope), to be grotesque caricatures of society. Dominique Pinon (a Jeunet regular) is, by far, the most expressive and funny looking of the stars playing the original scientist and his six clones and contorts his facial expressions to look like a Ralph Steadman drawing (note: Steadman designed much of the cover work for Hunter S. Thompson’s novels). Every expression, line of dialogue and body movement delivered by Pinon makes him look like a harmless, demented mime, which sums the bizarre beauty of the film.

The theme of innocence struggling amidst greed, indifference and evil is prevalent throughout the film, from the details of Krank’s scheme to the use of the soft-spoken, simple-minded One as the story’s hero. Unfortunately, the film sometimes forgets its plot and focuses too much on its side characters and sub-plots. Certain groups of characters are introduced without much development, and their function appears to add to the visual concept of the film, though this may be the function. This is especially true for the Cyclops, who start out as Krank’s henchman, then revealed to be a religious cult in league with Krank, but are then phased out of the film entirely without much explanation. There is a subplot that involves Miette’s prior, Fagan-esque caretakers, the Octopus Sisters, who are in deadly pursuit of their old runaway pupil that steals Krank’s thunder, and audience members will most likely wonder where the emaciated mad scientist and his batch of stolen children went during this time. On the other hand, focusing solely on Krank would have compromised the other characters, so I think a little time away from Krank in exchange for such a collage of twisted characters is forgivable.

Despite its plot hiccups, The City of Lost Children is one of the most stunning, beautiful films I’ve ever seen in quite some time, possibly ever. Dark expressionism is so seldom used nowadays that it was a refreshing surprise to see someone using it to full effect again. Only Alex Proyas (director of The Crow and Dark City) appeared to be ushering in this style of filmmaking, but has since abandoned it for the likes of I, Robot and Knowing. Caro and, to a greater extent, Jeunet have continued to use rich colors, subtle surrealism and this expressionism throughout their respective careers, and The City of Lost Children still remains their visual masterpiece

Benn’s rebuttal:

I do agree with James concerning the lack of plot and character development, yet I wasn’t as bothered as I expected due to the visual appeal of the film. The world that Jeunet and Caro creates is so rich and bizarre and surreal that I felt that the art direction was the main star of the movie. Furthermore, I felt that the character’s function was to compliment the look and feel of this fantasy world, and the plot was, more or less, a macguffin. True we don’t really care about Krank or his plot, but I think thats the point. Besides, the little quirks and action that are seen during the film were enough development to keep me interested in the characters.

Concerning James critique on the use of dreams on the film; It never really crossed my mind. However, since the world within “Lost Children” resembles a nightmare, the portrayal of a dream might have been redundant. The film is enough of an escape from reality, that an escape from Jeunet’s reality would probably resemble something rather ordinary.

James’ rebuttal:

While I agree that this is certainly a visually stunning film, I’d differ as to whether or not it is still worthwhile due to the plot. While certainly it achieves its goals in expressionism and has a fantastic style that does manage to express its themes, I still find that it’s lack of plot and leisurely pace make it so that this film fails more than it succeeds. For those who focus on visual appeal or have an interest in film as an art form, there is something to be gained here. Anyone else may find themselves wishing they spent their two hours on a different film.

One Response to “The City of Lost Children”

Leave a Reply