When Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro work together, magic happens. Sadly they only directed two films as a team of equals and one of them has been slowly slipping through the cracks of history. To be honest, it's been a while since I watched The City of Lost Children [La Cité des Enfants Perdus] myself and even I couldn't quite remember what it was exactly about, so I was eager to find out if it would be able to stand the test of time. The answer was a resounding "Yes!".
People who have seen Delicatessen should have a pretty good idea of what to expect. The City of Lost Children follows a very similar setup, it's just a bit more fantastical overall. In part that's because there's a group of young children central to the storyline, but that's not all. Where Delicatessen was still grounded in something closer to reality, with only the secondary characters being outlandishly freaky, The City of Lost Children is a little weirder, darker and crazier at its core.
Once again the film is set in a non-specified future (though it could just as well be an alternative past or a complete fantasy world for that matter). The world is mostly in shambles and creepy organizations are ruling the city. A group of young kids led by a local teacher pull elaborate heists in order to survive, but one by one the kids are being kidnapped and shipped off to a refurbished oil rig out in the sea. Their luck turns when they befriend a big man-child who performs on the local fairs as a strongman.
Meanwhile on the oil rig a mad scientist is trying to regain his ability to dream. Aided by five clones (not his mind) and a brain trapped in a water tank, he tries his best to cure his own condition. The story is a bit of a mess really, but as long as you accept the premise it makes enough sense while watching. I bet there's also enough material here for those who like to come up with deeper layers, but that's not really why I watch a film like this.
Visually an stylistically, The City of Lost Children is pretty much impeccable. Jeunet and Caro improved on Delicatessen to make their world look even more fantastical without having to resort to unnecessary CG aid. The world they created is so detailed it's almost exhausting. Lighting is dark an moody, the camera work is expressive and even the costumes are a perfect fit. It's one of those film that hasn't aged a lot visually even though it's already celebrating its 20th birthday.
The soundtrack is surprisingly dark and abstract for a Jeunet film. There's a slightly classic vibe to it, but the thoroughly French sound that usually accompanies his films is nowhere to be found here. It's a nice change of pace that suits the film, giving it a gloomier edge and adding a little extra darkness to an already demented universe, without ever compromising the fantasy atmosphere or having it spill over into horror territory.
The acting is somewhat of an acquired taste, but that's only to be expected when looking at the larger than life characters that inhabit the film. Daniel Emilfork does a tremendous job as the mad scientist, Dominique Pinon is excellent as comic relief and Judith Vittet inexplicably stopped pursuing her career as an actress soon after she finished this film. Good child actors are rare and while one great role doesn't guarantee a successful future, it's definitely a loss of potential. As a bonus, Ron Perlman plays one of the better parts of his career, to the point where the film wouldn't really be the same without him.
The City of Lost Children is a film that revolves around the elaborate and strange universe that Jeunet and Caro created. The story is merely a hook to visit and explore the different characters and set pieces. It's a trip through a strange, magical yet surprisingly violent world that demands a little lenience whenever the story skips from plot point to plot point. It' something I appreciate in a film, but not everyone will like the somewhat loose and incoherent structure.
If you're a fan of Delicatessen and you haven't seen The City of Lost Children it's really a no-brainer. If you liked Jeunet's other films you can't really go wrong with this one either, but if you've been stumped by Jeunet's style before then it's probably best to just ignore this film. In a way I think it's one of his purest films, with Caro's influence splashed around everywhere you look. It's a great little film that survived its first 20 years remarkably well, but it will forever be a film for a niche audience, always on the verge of slipping out of sight. So if you're a Jeunet fan and you haven't seen it already, make a little effort and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.