A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process.A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process.A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process.
But I'll come back to that. In any version, at least Jeunet and Caro's astonishing visual flair and artistry come over. I can't think of a film that has such a concentration of memorable shots - time and again, especially watching on DVD with a freeze-frame facility, you realize how many beautiful compositions Jean-Pierre Jeunet gives us: though the cast of characters could easily fill a freak show, and the sets are dark and quite unglamorous in themselves, the cinematography is gorgeous and the mise-en-scène often strangely elegant. It has a look all of its own, perfect for a modern, urban fairy-tale. The music too is gorgeous, one of the finest scores by David Lynch's regular musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti.
"Fairy tale" is I think the best generic starting-point for this film, so long as you think Grimm rather than Disney. (Unlike "Delicatessen", it isn't really a comedy, though it has comic elements). And the plot works according to its own logic, even if the progression from scene to scene is occasionally a bit lumpy or obscure. Krank (the astonishing Daniel Emilfork), grown prematurely old because he cannot dream, uses a cult of blind, messianic preachers to abduct children from a decaying industrial port and steal their dreams - but they have only nightmares, and Krank falls ever deeper into despair and evil. It's up to the orphan pickpocket Miette and a none-too-brainy circus strongman, One, to put a stop to him. This rich idea is elaborated with all sorts of visual conceits and eccentric characters - Jeunet mounts, for example, a couple of astonishing sequences in which chains of unlikely effects proceed from the smallest of causes - but never at the expense of the central relationship of One and Miette.
In a sense Miette, like Krank, has grown old too fast: the orphaned street-children of this city are savvy and unsentimental, and never seem to have had a childhood; meanwhile there's something deeply childish, in various ways, about most of the adults. Sensitively directed and never overacting, Judith Vittet's Miette gradually thaws, and Ron Perlman brings a lot of sympathy and pathos to what could have been an oafish, cartoonish role: Jeunet gives plenty of space and subtlety to their gradually-developing friendship, and dares to do what I suspect no English director would dare to do at the moment, which is to make their relationship innocently sexualized. Neither of them is really a grown-up, but it's still an extremely risky move, exploring the first stirrings of pre-pubescent sexuality while trying not to be exploitative or prurient. I do think the film pulls it off, though I can imagine some viewers feeling distinctly uncomfortable with it. For me it's one of the most convincingly unsentimental and nuanced (if mannered) portrayals of childhood I've ever seen on the screen, and there is real compassion and tenderness along the way, as well as some darker twists and turns.
It's a film that rewards analysis if you're prepared to surrender to its strange world with its strange rules. But it rewards the senses and the emotions too - and it radiates love of cinema as the perfect medium for sophisticated fantasy. One elderly actress who appears towards the end (Nane Germon) acted - as Jeunet's DVD commentary points out - in Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête" about fifty years earlier (there are, by the way, distinct references to the Beauty and the Beast story here), and "La Cité des enfants perdus" deserves to join that film as one of the classic cinematic fairy-tales. Pity about Marianne Faithfull over the closing credits, though!
- Jan 24, 2003