In order to gear up for the opening on Friday of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film Micmacs, the Asheville Film Society has added a Wednesday screening this week with the Jean-Pierre Jeunet-Marc Caro film The City of Lost Children (1995). Those familiar with the first Jeunet-Caro feature, Delicatessen (1991), will have a pretty good idea of the tone of this work, which, like its predecessor, manages to be both playful and darkly disturbing. If anything, Lost Children is more disturbing and nightmarish than Delicatessen—and since this remarkable work is all about dreams (nightmares really), that’s as it should be.
The film opens on what appears to be every small child’s dream: actually seeing Santa Claus come down the chimney and enter the house. But there’s something wrong, because more and more Santa Clauses come down the chimney and through the door until the room is filled with them and the dream becomes a nightmare. This isn’t surprising seeing as how we’re in the dream of a child who has been kidnapped and given over to Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who has tapped into this dream because he hasn’t the ability to dream himself. It turns out that Krank is an homunculus created by a mad scientist, who also cloned himself (a plethora of Dominique Pinons), and created a sad brain that floats in an aquarium, sees through a camera lens and speaks through a pair of old-fashioned radio speakers. Oddly, the floating brain is the most human of his creations.
The preceding really is only the setup for the strange world of City of Lost Children. The plot concerns itself with a slow-witted circus strongman called One (Ron Perlman), who teams up with a young orphan girl, Miette (Judith Vittet), in an attempt to rescue his little brother (Joseph Lucien) from Krank (though One scarcely has all the details). In the midst of this, the brain—whose name is Uncle Irvin and who is given voice by Jean-Louis Trintignant—is carrying out a plan to stop Krank. There are also complicated connected plots involving Siamese twins (Geneviève Brunet and Odile Mallet) who run a gang of orphan thieves (à la Fagin), a flea circus and a weird self-mutilating fundamentalist religious group (of no apparent denomination). To say that the film is rich in imagination does it an injustice.
It may in fact be a little too rich in imagination, though I find that it depends on my mood when I see the film how I feel about that. If City occasionally feels a bit like something from Terry Gilliam, that’s perhaps not a bad thing—and I’d say, based on The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus (2009), that the influence may well be a two-way street. Nonetheless, the film can seem almost overloaded at times, and it’s probably the most flawed of Jeunet’s films (exempting Alien Resurrection (1997), which this film rather suggests with its homunculi). That said, a lot of filmmakers should be so flawed. The world of film would be a better place for it.
By turns funny, horrific and oddly sweet, there’s really nothing out there that’s quite like City of Lost Children. It’s also a film that lends itself to either being taken at face value as a surreal fantasy, or it can be read on several deeper levels—one of which is nothing less than as a parable of throwing off the shackles of religion, but that’s a discussion best left to another time.