Original title: La cité des enfants perdus
A strongman named One (Ron Perlman) tries to rescue his little adoptive
brother who first ends up in the hands of a pair of Siamese twins who have a
very Dickensian idea of the kind of work orphans are to be put to, and then in
that of rather fittingly named mad scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) – Krank
meaning “sick” or “ill” in German. Krank steals the dreams of children
while hiding away with his clones (all played by Dominique Pinon), a woman of
short stature and a brain in a tank on an oil platform. One finds help in the
clear preference of this particular cinematic universe for helping out the kind
hearted in the end, as well as in the form of Miette (Judith Vittet), one of the
twins’ orphan pick pockets.
Encountering certain movies at the wrong time in your life can paint a
director in a very wrong light for years to come. Case in point for me is
Jean-Pierre Jeunet (here partnered with Marc Caro as co-director). After an
early grumpy encounter with Delicatessen I had the man pegged as a
perpetrator of films of shrill yet pointless weirdness, and boy, was I wrong.
Not that Jeunet’s films – with or without Caro – aren’t weird and sometimes
indeed a bit shrill, but his is very much a weirdness with a point and a
personality, born from an aesthetic sensibility that takes elements of the
grotesque (always a main strand of the fantastic here in Europe, and
particularly in France), poetic realism (not even I can watch this film without
being reminded of certain parts of Marcel Carné’s aesthetic though seen through
the sideways lens of Jeunet’s and Caro’s world view), pulp, fairy tale and
proto-steampunk and mutates them into an organic whole.
The City is a film that consciously uses artificiality and artifice
not to distance the viewer from itself but to put her in a heightened state of
responsiveness necessary to really share into its vision. Cinema as a form of
hypnosis is a bit of an old cliché, of course, but that’s the kind of magic
Jeunet and Caro are aiming for here, an idea of cinema as something that sucks
its viewer completely into a world of its own.
Because the film does this so well, it can tell a story full of improbable
coincidence that is really fate having its say without looking embarrassed. The
whole affair takes place in a world where everything and everyone is more or
less visibly skewed (unlike our world where these things are often a bit better
hidden) but where kindness and graciousness can dwell in the grotesque and the
strange, too (which also might provide a bit of hope for our world).
Among the way, there are moments only a fool wouldn’t describe as poetic, of
strange ideas turned strangely beautiful, and of the beautiful turned strange.
While they are at it, the directors seed more than just a tiny bit of thematic
work about families (chosen, fated, or just accidental) and the way they can
form, deform or reform their members without ever falling into the deadliest
trap for the cinema of the fantastic where the fantastic is only a metaphor.