The City of the Lost Children
aka La Cité des enfants perdus
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director best known for a loveably whimsical fantasy romance, started out in collaboration with Marc Caro (whose focus was more on the art-direction side), with several equally idiosyncratic but much darker-hued pictures. Debut Delicatessen was an apocalyptic comedy about cannibalism. It was followed four years later by this twisted period fantasy foregrounding child abduction, experimentation and an unnervingly French Lolita complex. This is – I think – the first time I’ve seen the film since its original release, at which time I was blown away by the imagination and visuals (and visual imagination). In the cold light of 28 years, however, The City of the Lost Children proves much less entrancing, undoubtedly a cut above more recent scattershot Jeunet fare (Micmacs) but nevertheless basking in the “glory” of its unadulterated oddness, while nursing aggravating disdain for anything approaching narrative urgency.
I well recall speaking to a friend after that initial screening, one sensitive to such matters, about the relationship depicted between childlike strongman One (Ron Perlman) and adult-in-fortitude-and-purpose nine-year-old Miette (Judith Vittet). I was in favour of giving the picture the benefit of the doubt, that One had no paedophilic intentions towards “little sister”, regardless of her perceiving him in a potentially romantic fashion. But this was coming off the back of another French director telling the story of a childlike (hit)man caring for another young girl, one who perceives him in a potentially romantic fashion. In both cases, the directors depict their Lolita in adult-child fashion. With One, he’s given to snuggling up to her in “bed”, massaging her feet and blowing her back. “Starting to get attached?” she asks him at one point. He gets a tattoo announcing his love for her. When presented with an actual woman (a prostitute in a bar), he can only think about Miette; the woman makes herself scarce of the “competition” when the girl arrives.
Miette (adult in a child’s body) finds further contrast with Krank (mentally advanced child in aging adult’s body). This is visualised during the dream “contest” at the end, when she replaces Denree (Joseph Lucien) in the dream extraction and turns the tables; Krank reduces to a childlike state (and dies), while Miette becomes an older woman. Jeunet and Caro are playing queasily with adult-child boundaries – an adult who identifies as a child, a child who identifies as an adult – of sexualisation and corresponding innocence, in a thematic manner that is less commentary on such behaviours and more overtly perverse in its tone and indulgence (on the subject of commentaries, there’s this anecdote). I won’t belabour this aspect further, except to ponder that refugees from justice and/or cancellation Roman Polanski and Woody Allen may have seen France as safe haven simply through familiarity with its artistic output.
Uncle Irvin: You can persecute every child on Earth, but there’s one thing you’ll never have.
Uncle Irvin: A soul. You are a monster.
If you’re unconvinced by this element but still looking for the less than seemly, The City of the Lost Children has more than enough elsewhere. The picture is predicated on the abduction of children, ones most will turn a blind eye to. The motivation is to steal their dreams; the picture opens on a nightmarish encounter between a small boy and a series of grotesque Santa Clauses. Nightmarish, because it is a nightmare. Krank is the instigator, the creation of a disappeared scientist (Jeneut regular Dominque Pinion as the Original, whose six clones, also Pinon, assist Krank, along with Mireille Mossé’s dwarf Martha). Per vat brain Uncle Irvin (voiced by Jean-Louis Tritignant) – also created by the scientist – that scientist, having no wife and child, sought to make some himself, hence the six “children” in his image, all with sleeping sickness, and a three-inches-tall princess. Krank was intended as his masterpiece, highly intelligent, yet he was also unable to dream and so grew old exceedingly fast. Irvin has told Krank, “If the children yield only nightmares, the evil must be inside you”. Krank has no soul, he tells him.
Further unholy themes litter the faux-fairy-tale presentation of the picture. The false creator (the scientist), who has left/been expelled from his corrupted creation (of hybrids and clones), is suggestive of the demiurge. Any media involving preying on children retrospectively lends itself to an immediate analogy of feeding on children’s essences now, be it the dreams depicted here or adrenochrome. The Ouroboros snake is also included in Jeunet’s imagery, adding to the gnostic flavour. Adding to the prevailingly occult air is conjoined twin the Octopus (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet), whose purview includes Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) driving around the streets with an all-seeing eye atop his car. A circus performer, he weaponises his trained fleas, less germ warfare than stealth injection of agents that can be labelled as spread disease; the poison they inject elicits aggression in the victim. We see this foremost in transhumanist cyborg cult the Cyclops (again with the single-eye imagery), but also when the injected One is caused to turn on his beloved nine-year-old.
The general sense in The City of the Lost Children is of an only semi-coherent mish-mash of ideas and imagery. The scientist may have spawned aberrations, but not through malicious intent, and those causing injury (Krank) are doing so out of pain and unbalance. Only really the Octopus, who has a Fagin-eseque role in respect of the urchins, merits undiluted enmity. The picture is thus bursting with subtext yet toothless in terms of eliciting coherent emotional responses. Like Gilliam – who enthused enough over the film that the US release got a poster quote – Jeunet and Caro are adept at assigning roles to an array of grotesques, but in contrast to Gilliam, there’s no real exuberance or energy to the proceedings. The City of the Lost Children is cold and dyspeptic, for all the bravura of the imagery.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography (with Eric Caro and Philippe LeSourd) is highly evocative, and the steampunk flourish makes for memorably gallic “Victoriana” (you could imagine them going great guns on a great Jules Verne adaptation). There are showpiece moments throughout, most notably the chain reaction of Miette’s tears leading to a ship nearly doing for the Octopus. The performances are amped up, however, and I generally find one Pinon more than enough, let alone seven. Perlman looks as if he’s walked in off the set of Altman’s Popeye. Angelo Badalamenti provides a suitably sinister score.
If I’ve been strafing the last few paragraphs with random comments, that’s how the picture feels as a piece of storytelling. Is it a reveal of Elite practices or simply a strange brew striking out in disparate directions? There is clear intent here, but what’s the correlation between its different parts? The City of the Lost Children encourages a somewhat disquieted response through its presentation of children while running with familiar themes of science unchecked, genetic experimentation, cloning, transhumanism and mind control. Notably, the film met with greater critical plaudits than it did financial (it was a flop, grossing $11m off an $18m budget).