The City of Lost Children

Dark fable
Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon
The Setup: 
Dark fairy tale about a man who cannot dream, so he steals the dreams of children.

It was a nice, snowy night, and it was my selection for movie night, so I picked this, which I thought would be a slam-dunk with my friend, for all its sweet sentimentality and innocent fable-like nature. Alas, I had also forgotten how dark and dank and sticky the majority of it was, and he ended up not loving it at all, but damning it as “Um, yeah, really interesting. Creative.” MMmm yeah, so it’s CREATIVE.

We open on a nice snowy night, with a kid awake as Santa comes down the chimney. He gives the kid a simple wind-up toy. Then another Santa comes down, then another, and another, and it’s all getting very creepy and nightmarish, until finally the old man Krank wakes up. He has been experiencing the dream of one of the kids he has kidnapped, but his tragedy is that he causes all the kids nightmares, so that’s all he gets. Awwww.

So that is out at this huge station out in the ocean, sort of like an oil drilling platform. Meanwhile, in the dark, dank city, Ron Perlman as One [that’s his name, i.e. he doesn’t have a real identity] is the strongman in a sidestreet attraction. There’s a scuffle and his handler is killed. Soon these creepy people with video cameras stuck in their eyes come to take away this young boy that lives with One, his little brother. In one of the visuals that blew my mind the first time I saw this, the young boy is passed into a trap door in the back of a truck painted with an eye, so it looks as though he is passed right into the eye.

Now my friend doesn’t watch a lot of foreign films, and this movie is so visual, I had suggested that we watch the version that had been dubbed into English. But soon to became apparent that this was not tenable, as not only was it distracting that their mouths didn’t match their dialogue, but you lose so much in not hearing the actual voices of the actors, the real sounds that go with their bodies. Now, out on the platform in the ocean, we meet our characters there. First is Uncle Irvin, who is a brain kept in a tank of water. He tells the story of how they all came to be. There was an inventor who created them all, including a number of identical clones [all brilliantly played by Dominique Pinon], the brain in the tank, and Krank, who was the smartest of them all, but lacked the capacity to dream, and thus became old before his time. This is why he steals the kids, so as to take their dreams, but all he ever gets is nightmares, because he’s such a scary old man. One night Uncle Irvin gets one of the clones to capture a dream from one of the kids, and he sends it out in a canister, in the manner of a message in a bottle.

Meanwhile, One, looking for Little Brother, meets up with a bunch of street kids, led by a strong little girl, Miette. The kids are part of a thievery scheme run by these two very creepy Siamese twin sisters. There’s a wonderful little sequence in which the sisters cook together, their four arms working seamlessly together in the manner of a crab, and at one point one reaches over and casually scratches the other.

The rest of the movie is One and Miette’s quest to find Little Brother. Along the way, there are some major standout sequences. The first is the sisters hiring a guy to find the escaped Miette and One. He has a number of fleas that he hooks up with a syringe, and sends out on a dog. The dog casually walks near whoever the target is, and the flea jumps onto them. When this movie came out, CGI had mostly been used to show spaceships or water-people or other major, otherworldly effects, so it was quite a revelation to see something as commonplace as a flea, and to abruptly cut to action taking place on a microscopic level, on a man’s skull. The flea is featured several times during the course of the movie. There is a sequence in which the canister with the dream reaches the city, bursts open, and the dream passes around town as a green cloud. There’s a sequence in which a tear from one character causes a series of events that ends up with a tanker crashing into a pier. Every few seconds there’s a major, incredibly clever and creative sequence, accompanied by spectacular visuals. And amidst all the darkness and dankness and crime and extreme creepiness is a whole layer of sweetness and sentimentality as One becomes Miette’s protector [and vice-versa] and they set out to rescue Little Brother and the rest of the kids.

The filmmakers, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, previously made the also whimsical, also dank Delicatessen, and Jeunet went on to direct Amelie, which used his whimsy in an almost entirely sweet way. This film has obvious parallels with the imagination of Tim Burton, to the extent that it’s difficult to sort out who influenced whom, although the Jeunet and Caro vision is a little more genuinely dark and just somehow seems less processed, although this could be the by-product of it simply being foreign. Regardless, if you like a mix of darkness and whimsy and are into the recent explosion of films about fantasy worlds where kids have adventures, you’ll definitely find this worth checking out.

Ultimately this is just a big fairy tale, with extremely simple characters who each embody one idea. There are also characters that symbolize a certain interesting perspective, such as the people with the video cameras for eyes. They are a sect, explicitly called out as being akin to an evangelical religion, that believes one should renounce sight, never look at things directly, and “enter the world of appearances.” And then the whole allegory of the man who can’t dream, so he steals the dreams of children, and the fact that they are all creations of a man who brought them to life, then just left them to shift for themselves. Aside from all there is to look at and get involved with, there’s plenty to think about as well.

Which can account for why the film can be overwhelmingly wonderful on first watch, inviting you to watch again to pick up all the details you missed—and why that second watch can prove a bit disappointing, as you find out that it didn’t really keep that many secrets after all. It’s also a bit long, and two full hours, especially as there is so much to take in and become accustomed to: an entirely new world with new rules and detailed character histories and ways of doing things… we were 30 minutes in and I felt like it had been an hour, and couldn’t imagine how they were going to keep it up for 90 more minutes. But it’s still a wonderfully creative fable and spectacular visual experience featuring many visual and philosophical mind-blowers.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, especially if you like the films of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro.