(Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, France, 1995)
In what will surely be recorded in cinematic history books as one of the all-time masterpieces of visual imagery, directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro create a vision of Earth that is, paradoxically, as believable as it is strange. The sprawling, labyrinthine city where the story begins is an amalgam of Victorian Paris, the fantastic futures created by cinematic pioneer George Mielles, and elements from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. This eclectic combination surpasses its influences however, and emerges as an authentic alternate universe to our own. Costume designs by Jean Paul Gaultier and music by David Lynch regular Angelo Badalimenti embellish the fantasy tale, all the time keeping the look and 'feel' within the realms of extreme possibility. Whereas Delicatessen could reasonable summed up as an off-kilter, black comedy, the same could not be said of The City of Lost Children. This is simply fantasy at its very best. It contains threads of sexual, sinister, earthy and elemental nature, and exaggerated reality; in the same way the story of Little Red Riding Hood or the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm do.
Ron Pearlman (known widely, for another fantasy role, as the Beast in TVs Beauty and the Beast series) is well-cast in the classic gentle giant role of One. Dominique Pinon plays multiple roles as the five young clones simultaneously (using split screen techniques) and an undersea-dwelling professor. However, the best performances come (suitably enough) from the child actors. By far the single, most impressive performance on screen comes from young Judith Vittet as Miette. She magically captures that borderline between innocent child and attractive youth. Indeed, this aspect is played on by the directors in several scenes. As she helps One in his search, she becomes attracted to him. One is of a significantly older age (he's clearly a man and not a boy) than Miette. in any film set in a familiar reality a potential romance between their characters would seem dubious if not ludicrous. However, One is retarded. He doesn't speak in fully-formed sentences. In contrast, Miette is mature for her age (never stated, but one assumes around six), and she wears lipstick - not in the awful, unnatural style that young girls really do, but in a way that compliments her face. So, there is a believable meeting of minds - the two of them much closer than their respective appearances would imply. In a delicately-handled scene, Miette quizes One over the type of women he is attracted to, asking him what he would want his wife to be like. Sitting behind One, unseen by him, she playfully touches her hair as he describes the woman of his dreams, and puts on a drop diamond earing to enhance her already striking natural beauty. In this moment, we learn that it is love as an emotion that Miette truly seeks, not that found in a partner or lover. (Demonstrating the 'uncomfortable' nature of this scene, the original video sell-through release in the UK of The City of Lost Children had this scene trimmed at the suggestion on the BBFC to remove the more overtly 'sexual' gestures.)
Viewed in this way, the film is as much about parental figures, or the absence of them, as it is about anything else. The six clones do not know who their father is. This troubles them because one of them has a conversation with their 'uncle' about who was the 'original', the real person from which the rest of them were cloned. The street urchins are all seen to be without parents or even parental figures. In fact, One is the only 'guardian' in the film and only because he is the elder of two brothers, not because he is a true parent. This absence of parental figures is deliberate since early in the film we see a poster declaring parents' anger at countless child kidnappings - "Enough!" they cry, but never in person. The first quarter of the film is clouded in mystery as the major players and conventions of this bizarre world are established. Therefore, the audience must rely upon the minimal information supplied and the sumptuous art direction to carry it through to any substantial plot elements. This has the detrimental effect of distancing the viewer from the actual development of the story if not the characters.
As one would expect from the directors of Delicatessen, there are a couple of marvellous vignettes. The first shows the most ingenious (and delightful) way of opening a locked door you're ever likely to witness. The other two most memorable moments rely upon cutting edge computer graphics to achieve their effect. As the moving (computer generated) images of a flea fills the screen, we watch as its trainer gets it to attach a minute syringe to its head, 'drink' from a tiny vial and hop off to land on the head of an unsuspecting victim, where it sinks the green liquid in the syringe into their skin to poison them. The other is a variation of that oft-used cinematic device the 'domino effect', where one action triggers a series of reactions. In The City of Lost Children, the initial impetus is a flying tear drop (another CG image that fills the entire screen) which, in a terrifically ludicrous fashion, eventually manages to save Miette from certain death. On the small screen much of the impact of the theatrical experience is lost, partly due to the dark hues used throughout the production design. The darkness of the film mirrors that found in the already mentioned Brazil but also Blade Runner. In content and tone it shares most with Ridley Scott's SF classic, being about human emotions and those who appear to be human but are artificially created and desperate to feel those emotions. In execution, however, it is closer to Brazil - something of a flawed masterpiece. 7/10
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