Once a week for the past six years – a streak that could not be interrupted even by Superstorm Sandy – the New York Movie Klub has gathered its 20 or so members to share a film with each other. Cinephile City’s Mark Young is a member of the Klub, and every Monday he will share the previous week’s movie here.
A friend of mine recently asked me if I had seen Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 film, Amelie. I replied that I had not. “Oh, you have to see it!” she said. “It’s so whimsical!” I have no doubt that’s true, in part because I’ve already seen the 1995 film that Jeunet’s co-directed with Marc Caro, City of Lost Children.
The best way to describe the level of whimsy in play here is that the movie opens with something that most movies would close with: a small boy is visited by Santa Claus. He gifts the boy with a hand-made wooden toy and it’s all so good-natured and off-kilter that you could just vomit. Then another Santa shows up, followed by another, and it gets weird and eventually creepy. It’s soon clear that whatever whimsy is going on in this boy’s life, it’s rather dark and occasionally ugly.
What’s really going on is that, children are being kidnapped and having their dreams stolen by the villainous Krank (Daniel Emilfork). Through a series of coincidences, young orphan Miette (Judith Vittet) and dim-witted circus strongman One (the great Ron Perlman) become mixed up in the plot. Krank isn’t all that they have to worry about in the city, either, as any place where children can so easily be lost would surely be home to all sorts of unsavory characters.
You’re not likely to see another movie which looks quite like City of Lost Children. The film was an early pioneer in the style that today is called “steampunk,” but that label sells the film short. It’s not just that the film seems to repurpose 1880s technology for futuristic uses; there is an additional layer of dark fantasy in play, darker than the darkest Dickens novels. It’s as though Jeunet and Caro wish to tell one of the gruesome, violent fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm long before Walt Disney got his hands on them.
Then, on top of that, there is a faint level of irony. Jeunet and Caro are not making a children’s film, and as such, they know that their audience is too old for fairy tales. This is a film in which one character tells a fairy tale which is central to the story, and another character responds sarcastically, “Ah, a fairy tale. I can already feel tears in my eyes.” And then on top of that, there is a sort of anti-ironic backlash, letting us all know that the only self-aware characters in fairy tales are the villains, and that the sincerity of a child — even a jaded child like Miette — is often the best weapon in life.
Jeunet and Caro explore these varying levels mostly with their camera. Every wide shot and establishing shot emphasizes the Dickensian level of grime covering the city. The camera moves closer to explore the unusual technologies of this world, but it saves its close-ups for those moments of highest sincerity. Jeunet loves to move his camera too close to his actors, uncomfortably close, until their skulls and faces are nearly distorted in the camera lens. For this same reason, he likes to use actors with highly expressive faces, such as Emilfork and Perlman, exaggerating and amplifying the sort of emotion he is aiming for.
It’s difficult to judge how good Perlman (who’d had a long and decorated acting career up to that point, but had never before been the lead in a film) is, as I don’t speak French and can’t judge his line deliveries. If you told me that he had learned his lines phonetically, I would believe that, and if you told me he was fluent in French and was making a choice with the way One spoke, I would believe that as well. He’s not bad, obviously; Perlman never is, even in films which turned out awful. But the emotion is all in his face. One can tell from the way One looks at Minette that he sees her as an adversary at the beginning of the film, and a little sister at the end. But when Perlman delivers lines to that effect … it’s impossible to say.
However, City of Lost Children is not the sort of movie that should be judged for such details. It’s the sort of movie where you just let its ideas wash over you, from the cult of cyclopean cyborgs to the bank heist pulled off through the use of just a cat and a mouse. It’s film where you show up for the gorgeous visuals , and you stay for the whimsy and childlike innocence.
Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.