The City of Lost Children
aka La cité des enfants perdus
First screened in April 2015 / Reviewed in May 2015 / Click Here to Comment
Directors: Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. Cast: Daniel Emilfork, Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Joseph Lucien, Geneviève Brunet, Odile Mallet, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Mireille Mossé, Serge Merlin, Guillaume Billod-Morel, François Hadji-Lazaro, Dominique Bettenfeld, Mapi Galan, Briac Barthelemy, Pierre-Quentin Faesch, Alexis Pivot, Leo Rubion, Lotfi Yahyajedidi, Rufus, Marc Caro, voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant. Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro, and Gilles Adrien.

Twitter Capsule: Like Terry Gilliam making a live-action Ghibli film, with a rather heavy spirit. Ingenious but ponderous.

VOR:   Jeunet seemed headed in darker, more surrealist directions before perking up with Amélie; greater risks here, but fewer entry-points. Striking time-capsule or instant anachronism?

Photo © 1995 Constellation/Lumière/Studio Canal+/France 3 Cinéma/Sony Pictures Classics
Twice in the last six months I have taught the first chapter of Dudley Andrew's What Cinema Is!, which argues fervently that 21st-century cinema is wholly disconnected from any principle of photographic realism: i.e., the idea that what we see on screen at some point "really" appeared before the camera, and that cinema's aesthetic and ethical claims therefore lie in conveying that reality, with less manual intervention than other arts require. (The sculptor's or painter's hands busily form a world; the filmmaker's hands, in this school of thought, ready the camera to receive an imprint of the world as is, however briefly.) Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie is the villain of that particular piece, not just for amassing a fortune through its white-washed vision of Paris-for-Export but for leaving all other dimensions of the real world behind as well. Andrew discerns here an entirely fabricated and micromanaged spectacle that would never, ever allow for the kind of serendipitous accident that Amélie herself claims to love, enraptured as she is by that errant fly ambling between the lovers' lips in Jules and Jim. These thoughts were impossible to set aside as I watched The City of Lost Children, a previous film in Jeunet's filmography, albeit co-directed with longtime collaborator Marc Caro. In its splicing of the fanciful with the grotesque, its conjuring of humans who seem not quite human, and its Rube Goldberg approach to plot mechanics and to onscreen machines, The City of Lost Children is easily identifiable as an ancestor in the Amélie bloodline, even though its generic roots and visual frames of reference are in steampunk fables, rather than romantic comedies. My students, many of whom were reared on Amélie, often bridle at a film so sunny in its innovations, so eager to announce itself as something new, being treated so roughly in Andrew's critique. The City of Lost Children, with its black cobblestones, malign conspiracies, and diabolical offshore rigs, owns up more to being original and apocalyptic at the same time: an obvious end of something, even as it assiduously opens new avenues into image, sound, and storytelling. Audacious as it is, and a great deal colder, it would probably strike them as a fairer, self-consciously readier target for Andrew's laments.

That said, The City of Lost Children also differs from Amélie in appreciable ways. Both films are ingeniously lit—even, at times, overbearingly so. Amélie, though, despite its spectacular sets, clearly chooses cinematography as the staging-ground for its freshest inventions, its greatest salvos to fellow filmmakers. Bruno Delbonnel bends and plasticizes light in ways that are no less shocking for tasting so sweet, though he achieves his effects in closer tandem with Amélie's fleet of digital artists than almost any director of photography previously had. The collaboration serves this particular film so well (if you like that sort of thing, etc.) and blazed so many trails for the medium as a whole that, back in June 2010, the American Society of Cinematographers voted it the best-shot film of the new millennium. By contrast, it's no slight on Darius Khondji's typically evocative lensing of The City of Lost Children to say that you leave this film thinking about the sets and costumes. The production was co-designed by Caro and two-time César winner Jean Rabasse, whose career extended afterward to teamwork with Bernardo Bertolucci and Cirque du Soleil. (Aline Bonetto, Amélie's Oscar-nominated production designer, is credited as City's lead set decorator.) The costumes, famously, were by Jean-Paul Gaultier, including a knit sweater that just keeps unraveling, an evildoer's gray labcoat that sticks to him like shrink-wrap, headpieces that suggest a deadpan spin on Christopher Lloyd's exo-cerebrum from Back to the Future, and a series of Santa outfits that are only unsettling because the color red is so studiously avoided in most of City's frames. Teeming with obvious references, from Méliès to Gilliam, The City of Lost Children nonetheless stakes a strong graphic claim of its own. Against all those Hollywood craftsmen who murmur in press releases, "I feel I've done my work best when nobody notices it," you sense that Jeunet and Caro wouldn't mind if you stumbled out of this film rhapsodizing about the spectacle, even if you couldn't remember what was happening at a given moment. Even, perhaps, if you never understood or cared what was happening to begin with.

Or maybe they would mind, after all? They sure pack in a lot of story for a team whose interests appear to lie elsewhere: a whole bunch of convoluted incident about children being abducted so a mad scientist can chemically extract dreams from their brains, and about another brain that floats inside a jar while encouraging or maybe admonishing this effort, and about a plethora of misfits (diminutive clones, giant strongmen, twin sisters joined at the torso) who are for the kids, or for their capture, or both, or neither. The film is fairly antic. Everybody in it is up to a lot, and while I wouldn't call it impossible to follow, the narrative never feels earnest the way the images do. The story points add up, but only perforce, and often clumsily. As with the completely see-through fakery that solders together those venal twin schoolmarms, collectively known as "the Octopus," you can see all the joins in the script, including some slipped stitches and several desperate, thick-corded ligatures. Who cares if you see them? They're only there to furnish a platform for some ocular treat, and in many ways it's refreshing to see a film this exhibitionist about its own construction, this unconcerned with "realism" in any sense. The problem is not, then, that the movie is top-heavy with props and clutter at the expense of story. It's actually top-heavy with both, so much so that you can't make out whatever foundation is meant to hold all of this up. And while the movie often lingers on its own elaborate frames, the better to savor them (and some really do engage the eye), it whisks through its narrative beats as though they're fundamentally expendable.

I had never seen The City of Lost Children before this Cannes '95 feature, but I was very aware of its eccentric, ubiquitous advertising during the winter holidays 20 years ago, and of how long it hung around in theaters. I had always perceived the film as an impressive box-office grosser and, in some general way, a Big Deal. Obviously, folks in Hollywood were impressed by City and its predecessor, Delicatessen. Together, for better or worse, they motivated Jeunet's invite to helm Alien: Resurrection for Fox. Public and professional approval seemed to accrue rather quickly to this film, so I was surprised to learn from Cannes reportage that critics were in fact quite divided. Even the hometown audience, always delighted to see a French film opening the festival, expressed plenty of qualms. If anything, reading these notices affirmed my own reaction, mixed as it was with awe and annoyance, intrigue and impatience. The mixed reviews didn't surprise me in terms of my own response, but in terms of what I remembered as the world's response.

I keep privileging public reception, industry ramifications, and scholarly discourses in this discussion of The City of Lost Children because that's exactly what the film seems to invite: it exists as a provocation about what cinema could do, or at least what it could look like, but with no more hope or intention of actually starting a trend than a Gaultier runway ensemble aims to be worn on the sidewalk. I'm a fan of couture risk-taking in cinema, but City is perhaps too much of an instant museum-piece, albeit dressed up as a midnight movie. The actors gamely ham it up, but in ways that reduce the audience to stupefied onlookers rather than winning us over to the side of delirious experimenting (as, in my view, Amélie rather winningly does). I couldn't help admiring what Jeunet and Caro devised but also couldn't quite take to it. I had the same reaction to Gilliam's Brazil, which one can imagine hanging like a mad, coiled mobile over the filmmakers' heads: a Duct-Coil of Damocles, a singular inspiration that, in being so openly echoed, seems more than ever like a dead end or a sui generis object. Gilliam's own 12 Monkeys, which bowed in U.S. theaters at virtually the same time as The City of Lost Children, makes a much more compelling case for bewildering futurepast and apocalyptic berserk as milieus by which to engage and entertain the audience, rather than blocking us out. 12 Monkeys, batty as Brad but as grounded as Bruce, constantly invites us to have fun with it; City, by contrast, seems at all times to intone from the screen, "This is the kind of film that definitely has fans." I found myself mentally watching that hypothetical audience rather than watching the film, being glad if slightly puzzled that the movie existed for them, and maybe only for them.

In this respect, and further stoked by my dim memories of its initial release and my recent assigning of Andrew, The City of Lost Children reminded me how many of the filmmakers whose names I learned first when I got interested in movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s are no longer with us, even though none of them have died. Burton seems keen on embarrassing himself. Gilliam has tilted for so long at the same windmills as to become completely irrelevant. Peter Greenaway—who even knows what he's up to? It speaks to adolescent naïveté but also to a certain spirit of that age that so many celebrity directors convinced me of their authority and, in the current lingo, successfully built their brand not because of how they moved their camera, manipulated their frame, or ordered their shots (image and montage, the longstanding camps in the what-is-cinema-really wars) but because of what they filmed. They filled the screen with stuff, much of which you'd never seen before, or not quite like that. Some were inspired by comic books, others by museum curation, even if, as in Greenaway's case, the museums regularly turned into theaters of cruelty. It was an era of mise-en-scène, stretching to include that obedient student with the standout penmanship, James Ivory, who also exists today mostly as a rumor. David Cronenberg and Pedro Almodóvar, two more purveyors of grand spectacle who rose to prominence during this era, have held onto the most durable careers by adjusting their sensibilities in major ways. Their films tend to have sleek, hard surfaces now. The screen is a prestige chassis, through which you can hear all the old machinery humming, all the perverse fuel running through all the old valves. But their art mostly consists nowadays in not lifting the hood, in flaunting the aerodynamics rather than rubbing our noses in Stuff.

The City of Lost Children is unmistakably of that era: filled with oddball artifacts, and itself quite pointedly an oddball artifact, seeking approval on those very terms. It seems to guess that the life expectancy for this sort of cinema may be limited: the movie ends with an ornate edifice, governed by a megalomaniac director who never figured out when to stop, exploding into flames and sinking beneath the waves. I was sorry and not sorry to see it go. To watch the film is to see cinema absorbing to itself a whole new suite of previously-unimagined props but also to feel adrift from some basic groundrules. Jeunet and Caro couldn't possibly have a clearer point of view, in the sense of having an aesthetic; their camera more or less lacks one, though, in the sense of providing an orienting intelligence, a place from which to watch. They want to show us so much, which is flattering but exhausting: we're asked to be too many places at once, but none for very long, and without much reason to commit more to this image than that one, this standpoint versus that one, this character or subplot or backstory or motif versus that one. It's an achievement of a sort, but wittingly or not, its goals are too similar to those of its mercenary dream-robber, Monsieur Krank. Rather than steal our dreams, The City of Lost Children keeps trying to have them on our behalf, or to sell us on its fantasies rather than freeing us up to have our own. I was taken with a lot of what I saw, but I felt helicopter-parented. I don't need a movie to festoon me with this much stuff, or to do my homework for me, or to check every minute if I need anything—maybe this!, for example, or perhaps this! It'd be interesting to see someone revisit this kind of filmmaking today, in any key that wasn't kitsch monstrosity or flat, Inception-y anhedonia. Mad Max: Fury Road, which has about twenty visual ideas in its first four minutes, suggests there is great potential here, as well as an eager audience. But that film, to an arguable fault, has ideas and velocity on its side, whereas The City of Lost Children is fascinating but pretty stagnant. You wish you could move more quickly through its rooms, and that the exhibit felt more selective, and that your own participation were more frequently solicited. Grade: B–

César Awards (French Oscars): Best Production Design (Jean Rabasse)

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