A man with a bizarre apparatus strapped to his head. That’s the cover of The City of Lost Children VHS tape, and that’s what made me finally rent it one afternoon. Box art, like poster art, is often better than the movie that it advertises, and fortunately, this is not the case with this film. Amelie director’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and Marc Caro) film is a wonderfully dark, bizarre tale with an amazing visual style and solid performances by the cast.
Children are being kidnapped by a religious cult known as “Cyclops,” who deliver them to Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a man who cannot dream his own dreams and instead steals them from children. One (Ron Perlman) is a faire strongman with an adopted little brother named Denree, who is kidnapped and taken to the oil platform-esque laboratory where Krank resides with the 6 clones of his creator (Dominique Pinon), a two-foot tall woman, and a brain in a fish tank named Uncle Irwin. One is a little slow, and by chance meets up with the street-smart Miette (Judith Vittet), one of several young orphans that pilfer cash and jewelry from the city’s denizens under the direction of a pair of Siamese twins known as “The Octopus.” Together, One and Miette attempt to discover where Denree and the rest of the city’s missing children have disappeared to. They are at various points impeded and assisted by Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), an ex-circus leader who has trained fleas to inject unsuspecting victims with a drug that, upon hearing a tune from Marcello’s street organ, turn on their friends in a violent fit of rage. If the characters in this movie sound rather… distinct and a little strange, it’s because they most definitely are, and bring a memorable presence to the proceedings. Ron Perlman’s portrayal of an adult with the mind of a child works as a perfect foil to Judith Vittet’s character who behaves like an adult with a healthy dose of cynicism. This is made even more impressive by the fact that Ron Perlman doesn’t speak French, but memorized his lines in order to perform with the French cast. Perhaps one of the most effective characters is that of Krank, and that’s in no small part to Daniel Emilfork’s gaunt and almost skeletal face. The man is genuinely creepy and his role as a child-snatching dream thief is one that fits like a glove. Dominique Pinon, a Jeunet regular, plays the six clones (and the geneticist creator of Krank and his unique “family”) to humorous effect; especially when 6 Dominique Pinons are on screen at once engaging in slapstick via special effects wizardry.
Speaking of special effects, the real star of the show here is the visuals. A skewed color scheme is used throughout the film, the actors were made up in white face and the color palette corrected until their skin was flesh colored, which accounts for the greenish-yellow hue of the entire movie. The city is perpetually rainy and foggy, the sea is almost a lime-green, and the entire architecture of the place seems to be falling apart and moldering. Krank’s laboratory is full of intricate, elaborate machinery and mechanical “sarcophaguses” to hold dreaming children, and this somewhat steampunk style is used again for the cult members of the “Cyclops,” who all wear metallic eye implants and look very reminiscent of Star Trek’s Borg. The CGI used for certain sequences, mostly those involving Marcello’s fleas, is somewhat dated now, but isn’t terribly off-putting in the context of the film. We’re treated to several dream sequences, most of which are surreal and often nightmarish. Most of this visual style is almost certainly to the credit of co-director (and art director) Marc Caro, who channels a similarly grimy city setting and gloomy feel in the earlier Jeunet-Caro effort Delicatessen. Backing the superb visuals is a haunting, sometimes carnivalesque score by Angelo Badalamenti (which you can hear a bit of in the trailer above). It’s a solid bit of music that really captures the almost fairy-tale like atmosphere of the film.
The City of Lost Children exemplifies what I love the most about film. The most amazing power of film is the ability to take us to other worlds, worlds that can be anything, whether it be outlandish and strange or simply mundane. Films like The City of Lost Children really flex this muscle by giving us a fantastical setting and unique characters with a captivating story to carry us through it. Although I’ve enjoyed Jeunet’s other offerings (including 2009’s Micmacs), The City of Lost Children remains foremost in my mind as a stand-out piece of cinema.