In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1995 and seven from 1985 (in an upcoming double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Pause any frame of 1995’s The City of Lost Children, and you can pore over devilishly precise details that are simultaneously pulchritudinous and putrid. This rumpled, beautiful and beastly work may not be the most emotionally resonant film from French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who co-directs here with Marc Caro). But it remains his most fulfilling, and surprising, visual feast in the sense that no two samplings ever yield the same favorite course.
Plus, like any great fairytale, The City of Lost Children changes its form depending upon when you have the experience, as if you can rediscover them for the first time. During rebellious youth, it’s easy to see this tale of a preternaturally aged antagonist stealing children’s dreams as reinforcement of a fundamental mistrust of adults — one generation vampirically leeching ingenuity of those who succeed them. At life’s midpoint, it feels like both a celebration and lament of aging, the wisdom we’ve accumulated and the whimsy we’ve abandoned.
Only then, too, does the film’s arrestingly amorphous structure achingly resonate as something like a life that feels like it’s moving far too fast. Many of the film’s faces, like some real-life friends, come and go fleetingly. Even if characters have been walking for hours, its days and nights are indistinguishably dark and dank, so time feels as if it’s passing in an instant, much like the casualty of months or years over before we know it.
In dreams, the grace notes of our daily thoughts can form the foundational chords for adventures in which logic grows thin, slippery and elusive. Jeunet and Caro’s vision embraces not only how dreams shift with whiplash frequency and tectonic might, but how they reflect our ongoing struggle to reconcile life’s opposites — imagination and reality, joy and strife, inspiration and resignation.
Mind you, it’s also a movie in which two dogs vigorously hump. But The City of Lost Children is so fraught with fascinating layers that even this bit — given what occurs because of it — could be read as a badge of salvation in our most basic instincts.
City represented the second of three feature-length collaborations between Jeunet and Caro, who met in 1974 and created animated shorts before jumping to the live-action short realm in 1981. Ten years on, they released Delicatessen, a deliriously demented, wickedly funny feature-length homage to Terry Gilliam and, in a way, Stephen Sondheim; in it, a butcher in post-apocalyptic France lures victims to chop up and sell as meat to his tenants.
Their last collaboration turned out to be Alien: Resurrection, fourth in the “Alien” franchise and, thus far, the last one to feature Sigourney Weaver. Caro provided storyboards and Jeunet directed, but many saw the film’s failure as emblematic of foreign directors crushed under blockbuster expectations. (Nearly two decades later, it’s a curiosity that seems underrated and underwhelming in equal measure.)
Jeunet has easily had the most visible post-breakup career, starting with 2001’s Amélie — a transporting, transcendent film about remaining open to the beauty of ordinary things and the potential of human kindness. Nominated for five Oscars, and soon to be adapted into a musical (with which Jeunet has gladly said he has nothing to do), Amélie is a far cry from the comparative gloominess of Jeunet’s previous work, almost more like Jacques Tati. He followed with A Very Long Engagement, a World War II epic of hellish, herky-jerky combat and potent emotion, and Micmacs, a Frank Capra-meets-Rube Goldberg confection that’s the least of his efforts but still fun. (Jeunet’s 3D film, 2013’s The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, remains unreleased in the United States despite having been partially filmed here.)
Although global acclaim awaited Jeunet, this spellbinding saga showcased his talent for casting woozy wizardry with a bold assortment of indelible images. It served up a wild, sparking touchstone of Jeunet’s own influences — Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Joseph Campbell, J.M. Barrie, Mary Shelley, Ridley Scott, Sergio Leone, the Coen Brothers, Tim Burton and Gilliam. And you see today how it proffered sweet inspiration to Guillermo del Toro, Charlie Kaufman, Alex Proyas, Julian Schnabel, J.J. Abrams, Tarsem, Henry Selick, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze and even the BioShock creators … and whispered something different to each of them.
Jeunet and Caro’s credited co-conspirators also read like a who’s who of ’90s European visual and aural iconography. Jean Paul Gaultier’s costumes feel like the tattered creations of a corroded society (and, akin to Alien: Resurrection, he got a similar big-budget sci-fi showcase in 1997’s The Fifth Element). Just months later, cinematographer Darius Khondji introduced his beguilingly brackish visuals to Hollywood in Se7en (which nearly every serial killer film for the next 10 years tried to mimic). Five years removed from his iconic Twin Peaks score, Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions echoed like a hand-cranked phonograph in the mind’s musty corners. (Perhaps more infamously known later on was visual effects supervisor Pitof … who directed the disastrous Catwoman.)
City opens on a deceptively sweet Christmas scene in a child’s dream as Santa descends from the chimney to dispense gifts. But it soon becomes a parade of the same spindly, sour-faced St. Nick, and the picture swirls into a nightmarish maelstrom. It’s as if Thomas Kinkade built a time machine, picked up Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, dropped bad acid with them, and merged his style with theirs on a palette of primary colors and paranoid tears.
The man in the Santa suit is Krank (Daniel Emilfork, a facial mix of Leonardo Cimino and David Lo Pan) — a stern scientist who has prematurely aged because of his inability to sleep or dream. We learn Krank is himself an experiment, the byproduct of a bioengineer whom Krank seems to have killed long ago.
By default, Krank is the head of a family the bioengineer left behind. There’s the cursed diminutive wife (Mireille Mossé) whom the bioengineer created. Then, as if all seven dwarves were Sleepy, there are the narcoleptic cloned servants fashioned in the bioengineer’s image and played by Jeunet’s male muse, Dominique Pinon. Adept at pantomime comedy and poignant pathos, Pinon is a cross between Thomas Jane and Robin Williams.
Finally, there is a migraine-addled, manipulative brain named Irvin (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant), preserved in formaldehyde and wired for sound in what looks like a refashioned Victrola.
Together, these characters bring new, and intriguingly dysfunctional, meaning to an island of misfit toys. Krank, the Frankenstein’s monster, questions the worth of humanity. The lack of a human form with which to escape taunts Irvin’s ambitious artificial consciousness. Even the dopey clones grow frustrated by a lack of possibilities denied to them by the fact that they are, at their core, just programs.
Because Krank cannot dream, he is kidnapping children in a fetid waterfront community that seems adjacent to a landfill port or waste-treatment plant. Krank’s stronghold is a Strombergian lair protruding from the depths like a deepwater rig at the edge of sanity itself. (An apt metaphor for a film that ruptures a wellspring of imagination deep beneath a sea of the subconscious.) Brighter burgs rest on the horizon but we never see them. Overrun with rusty, bulbous, imposing metal, this city looks like Gotham with all of the architecture but none of the infrastructure. As one of the largest-ever sets built for a French film, the Skid Row soundstage artifice tickles the edges of believability as playfully as those in 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors.
Krank’s goal is to steal the children’s dreams and claim them as his own, but the work backfires. When he enters the dreams, his frayed sanity attacks and mutates them, like a virus, into malformed, untenable nightmares that only worsen his condition.
This is but the prologue; Jeunet and Caro spin two kitchens of plates into motion when Krank’s minions — a decrepit, sweaty biomechanical cult called the Cyclops — nab young Denree (Joseph Lucien) for Krank’s next experiment. It turns out Denree is a beloved petit frère, or “little brother,” to Mr. One, a sideshow-strong man-child determined to get him back at any cost, played by Ron Perlman.
Yes, that Ron Perlman, who rose to prominence as a beefy Hollywood heavy in many a genre picture and, later, as the brutish, scheming mastermind Clay Morrow on the hit FX TV series Sons of Anarchy. Astoundingly, Perlman didn’t speak a word of French at the time of filming, and was given his lines phonetically by Jeunet and Caro. Perlman’s broken, incomplete French is a perfect fit for the character.
With his poofy, curly, maroon-dyed hair, Perlman resembles a steroidal version of UHF’s Stanley Spadowski or the Looney Tunes’ Abominable Snowman brought to life. But he’s never played a more believably sweet character, and there is an affecting tenderness to his titanic presence here that he would revisit during his more subtle moments on the otherwise outlandish Sons.
En route to rescue Denree, One encounters numerous rogues and allies: a cadre of self-sufficient pickpockets led by the precocious but shrewd Miette (Judith Vittet); conjoined-twin spinsters named the Octopus (Genevieve Brunet and Odile Mallet) who shake down the kids’ profits in exchange for protection; and Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), a self-medicating malcontent circus performer who has perfected a form of mind control that combines trained fleas, a special serum and a music box.
Across the board, Jeunet and Caro cast the film for facial and physical archetypes, much as you would pluck from the depths of your own consciousness. They also parcel the plot out palatably, lingering long enough on just enough detail to get your bearings from moment to moment. That is not to say it’s not cohesive, just that it hurtles forward — in players, settings and realigned allegiances — just as nocturnal voyages do. They also tinker with formalism and visual language, tweaking shot-reverse-shot choices in ways that impose foreign perspectives on the familiar.
The seeming helplessness of the many children in such a story — which abides by a brutal ethos of birth in the gutter and death in the port — might play into how we (incorrectly) deem this particular R-rated movie inappropriate for kids. With the exception of fleeting violence and sexuality, this is a ceaselessly inventive film for older children to savor. (If nothing else, they’ll marvel at Jeunet’s trademark hand-of-fate sequence, which starts with a tear on a spider web and ends with a spectacularly hellacious crash.)
Plus, City also forges an oddly affecting bond between One and Miette — a connection that never turns creepy even as it considers he may be as much of a child as she is … and she more adult than him. As the credits roll over Marianne Faithfull’s torch song, it feels like a tough, but fair, love song for their flinty friendship.
City is wonder manufactured with handmade, painstaking craft rather than manufactured wonder. And as a champion for continued imagination, it demonstrates the comparative power of parable over preachy sermon. With this unsullied vision of gothic heft and pictographic purity, Jeunet announced his arrival as a fairytale filmmaker extraordinaire. Today, he remains enraptured by the human mind’s malevolent and marvelous machinations on memories, fears, anxieties, hopes, dreams and nightmares, and his films, with a rapscallion’s glint in their eye, pull back the folds of a circus tent to welcome us inside.