Something about this film will always make me smile.
The French originally became noteworthy (in terms of cinema, anyway) by making A Trip to the Moon, the first fantasy film in history. The idea that cinema did not have to document reality was a new one. No part of the film was meant to resemble reality. Cinema had forever become a media that could be used to express wishes and dreams.
City of Lost Children embraces this same idea that A Trip to the Moon did. Nothing about this film even comes close to resembling any sort of real situation. The settings are dreamlike, the characters grotesque, and the ideas very simple. But it is also told very wonderfully and very entertainingly.
Frankly, films like this are the great reminders of why the medium exists.
The film is about a mad scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork), an inventor who has created his own family, including a wife named Bismuth (Mirelle Mosse), six cloned children (each played by Dominique Pinon) and a brain in a vat referred to as “Uncle Irvin” (voiced Jean-Louis Trintignant). Krank is looking for a way to reverse the aging process in himself, and believes that the fact he cannot dream is causing him to grow old. So he kidnaps children and attempts to steal their dreams, including the little brother of “One” (Ron Perlman), who joins with a latchkey child named Miette (Judith Vittet) in an attempt to rescue the kidnapped children.
The most unusual thing about the film may be Ron Perlman’s casting. He did not speak any French when he was cast, and had to learn all of his lines phonetically. I could not tell – he plays One with a certain conviction that shows he actually is not just a strong man (pardon the pun) for hire.He plays One as a very simple figure, who is “not really a grown up” as one of the kids explain. A sort of Faulknerian figure? Maybe. I do know that it works for the film and for the relationship that he must maintain with the other orphaned children. I would talk more about Emilford’s frightening performance more, but I think Perlman really is the standout in the film.
But most who watch the film will be impressed by the staggering visual design. The film looks as though the 1950s collided with a Dickensian city. As such, there is (primitive looking) technology everywhere. The streets are designed to be as cramped as possible, and the people are dressed in positively antique looking clothes. Krank’s lair is a perfect example of how the film uses its visual technique. It is an oil rig – but it is designed to look like Dracula’s castle. It is decrepit and dilapidated but clearly utilizes some advanced technology. That sort of divided time creates a dream like atmosphere that the film uses. Considering the film is about dreaming, this unique visual aesthetic was a success.
Is there anything more to the film than its visual design? Well, it is the primary reason that the film works so well. And, when that aspect is as good as it is here, sometimes that is enough. But directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeneut (the director of Amelie) attempt to make the material transcend the film. It really does help the audience inhabit the character’s minds. There are several POV shots from Uncle Irvin (shot with a fish eye lens) who must have a very peculiar world view. Most films would stop at that gimmick (hey, look, it’s a brain in a vat!) but Children adds an extra dimension. Same with the treatment of the clones (each are shown to be developing slightly different personalities and fight with each other) and Krank himself does come across as a sympathetic figure. The film is completely three dimensional.Now, the themes of good versus evil and the fairy tale perspective on morality don’t exactly all for this extra analysis. But a filmmaker treating his audience like intelligent beings is always a welcome addition to any film.
This film should be seen by anyone who claims that they love movies. The City of Lost Children transport people to a completely new world, but it does so in a way that is accessible to a mass audience. This is actually a more difficult task than it seems – it requires skill to make this world work. Not only do the filmmakers succeed, but they make it look effortless. This is a film I cannot wait to watch again.