Monday, February 22, 2010

Retro Review: The City of Lost Children (La cite des enfants perdus) (1995)

I first saw The City of Lost Children as a 14-year-old budding film enthusiast at a shopping mall cinema in Istanbul. It probably says a lot about our times that I can't imagine any shopping mall cinema would dare show this these days. I hadn't seen it since, until this weekend as a pre-game warm-up for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's new oddity, Micmacs

Over the years I grew a special fondness for Jeunet's weird and wonderful imagination. Though hit-and-miss (for every Amelie, there is an Alien: Resurrection that rears its ugly human/alien head), his films have always been visually engaging, though unnecessarily convoluted plot-wise. When he's good though, he is brilliant. Watching Delicatessen (1991) for the first time is like listening to Tool for the first time - you're not quite sure what hit you and you don't actually get it, but once you immerse yourself into it and just let go, there is no better feeling. The City of Lost Children is also such a film.

It did scare me shitless back in the day. In a Dickensian / Orwellian port city, the orphan street kids are kidnapped by a super-brainy psychopath who extracts their dreams to reverse his premature aging. Oh yes, there will be blood. One of the kids he has kidnapped happens to be the adopted little brother of a slightly Forrest Gumpy strongman, Ron Perlman. I can't think of an actor fitting a character as well as Perlman does, despite his dodgy French. A young pickpocket girl (Judith Vittete, or a Leon-era Nathalie Portman) also joins him in his quest to save his brother.

I can't really describe the visuals of this film - they have to be seen to believe. Co-directed by Marc Caro (Caro is responsible for 'art direction', Jeunet for 'mise-en-scene'), its imagination and vividness puts any floating mountain to shame (yes, Avatar-bashing is fun). And kudos to both Jeunet and Caro, they don't hold any punches. Let me set the scene: our brainy psycho uses an army of blind men to carry out the kidnappings. How do they kidnap children if they cannot see, you may ask. Well, he gives them an ocular device in return, which transmits the images to their brain. One of these 'cyclops' goes mad (it involves a flea, a tiny capsule with a mysterious green goo inside, and a hurdy-gurdy) and cuts the cord that transmits his friend's 'vision' to his brain. He then  plugs in his own device to his friend's brain. So this way his friend can see himself being choked to death. Pretty insane ...

It's not perfect by any means. There are way too many characters and there is more to look and marvel at than there is to feel. But, Perlman and little Vittete give excellent performances. Dominique Pinon (Jeunet regular) does what he does best in the multiple roles that he has to tackle. And you can actually sense how much Jeunet and Caro cared for this story; it's pretty obvious from its attention to detail. Sadly, they had to compromise on pace and plot to serve their visuals.

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