City of Lost Children, The (France, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1991, the creative team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro introduced movie-goers to their nightmarish view of a post-apocalyptic world where troglodytes inhabited the underground and a butcher relied on apartment tenants to keep his meat cabinet full. Delicatessen, a bizarre black comedy, became something of a cult hit -- certainly not everyone's fare, but those who got it, loved it. Now, four years later, Jeunet and Caro are back, and, with their latest film, The City of Lost Children, it's apparent that they have neither moderated their approach nor mainstreamed their vision. The City of Lost Children is as visually striking and daringly offbeat as its predecessor.

In The City of Lost Children, Jeunet and Caro have presented another gloomy world where "normal" life is no more. The film is saturated with atmosphere and features some of the most imaginative set construction of the year. The picture works in part because the film makers have taken the time and effort to frame a strange land where all their quirky characters can live and operate. Jeunet and Caro's movie is thematically and stylistically inspired by such diverse sources as Frankenstein, Dracula, Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Wizard of Oz. Like Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children is characterized by dark, twisted humor, yet this movie is more of a fantasy than a macabre comedy.

The City of Lost Children relates dreams to creativity, youth, and wonder. The capacity to escape the rational world through imagination fuels not only the desire to continue living, but the need to make something out of one's life. In this film, we are introduced the brilliant-yet-warped mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who is aging prematurely because he cannot dream. In an effort to stay alive, he has begun capturing children to steal their dreams. One of the toddlers abducted by Krank is little Denree (Joseph Lucien), the brother of a simpleminded circus strongman named One (Ron Perlman). One is joined in his search for his brother by Miette (Judith Vittet), the nine-year old, wise-beyond-her-years leader of an orphan gang. Together, One and Miette seek to penetrate Krank's fortress; elude his six cloned henchmen (all played by Dominque Pinon), the deadly Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), Irvin the talking brain (voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant), and the scientist himself; and rescue Denree. It proves to be a difficult task.

While much of The City of Lost Children is surreal and strange, the film's emotional center -- the relationship between One and Miette -- is nurtured with care and genuine feeling. Miette sees in One and Denree the chance for the family she has never known, although there are times when her intentions towards the older, child-like man seem more romantic than sisterly. It's to Jeunet and Caro's credit that they are able to present the ambiguities of this relationship tenderly, without ever injecting a hint of the sordid or perverse.

Daniel Emilfork is wonderfully frightening as Krank. Bald-headed and evil-looking, he evokes memories of Max Schreck's vampire in the classic silent film Nosferatu. Dominique Pinon, who had the lead in Delicatessen, uses his unusual face and goofy mannerisms to good comic effect in turning the clones into the Six Stooges. Judith Vittet shows great promise from one so young in her appealing portrayal of Miette, and Ron Perlman is effective as the strong, silent One.

Like Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children won't be to everyone's taste. In fact, even though I thoroughly enjoyed Jeunet and Caro's previous film, it took a while for me to warm up to this effort. The first forty-five minutes are poorly-paced and it's easy to get lost down one of the script's many dark, maze-like alleyways. The film tends to lurch along in fits and starts until Miette becomes established as a central character. From that point on, improvement is immediate and consistent. For those who enjoy the offbeat, The City of Lost Children is worth taking the time and effort to find.

City of Lost Children, The (France, 1995)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 1995-12-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1