Ron PerlmanDominique PinonJean-Claude Dreyfus
The City of Lost Children
Medium: film
Year: 1995
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Writer: Gilles Adrien, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro
Keywords: fantasy
Language: French
Country: France
Actor: Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Genevieve Brunet, Odile Mallet, Mireille Mosse, Serge Merlin, Rufus, Ticky Holgado, Joseph Lucien, Mapi Galan, Nane Germon
Format: 112 minutes
Website category: Foreign language
Review date: 17 July 2009
Well, that was a waste of time. I sat down to watch some Jean-Pierre Jeunet this morning as language practice for my trip to Paris next weekend and found that my DVD is the English dubbed version.
Admittedly I hate dubs. I'd sooner stub out cigarettes on my face than watch Japanese anime in the English dub and in that cases even the original is just voice actors in a studio. However over and above this instinctive reaction, my reaction tends to be that the performances suffer in a dub. How can they not? The situation's particularly bad in English-speaking countries, since at least elsewhere you're more likely to have a proper dubbing industry with enough work for the talent to be able to make a living. However even there, watching Harry Potter in Japanese is as painful as you'd expect. With The City of Lost Children, I was grouchy and snarling just from the lack of a subtitled option on the DVD. One makes allowances for 1970s Italian horror films, but these days there's no excuse.
More specifically, the voice actor for Dominique Pinon's diver is particularly poor and I've heard that the dub shreds the performances of the children. The film I saw this morning is dazzlingly imaginative but hollow. However apparently in the French-language version, nine-year-old Judith Vittet is remarkably good as Miette and gives the film an emotional core that would have helped me enjoy it much more. If nothing else, everyone should watch in French out of respect to Ron Perlman, who doesn't speak the language and was the only American on the set, but still learned his lines and delivered them all perfectly.
I'll shut up about dubs now.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet is probably more famous than his co-director thanks to Alien Resurrection, but this is just as much a Marc Caro film. The two of them collaborated on Foutaises, a short film in 1990, then made their feature debut with Delicatessen (1991). The City of Lost Children (1995) was their follow-up. Personally I don't think it's anywhere near as good. Delicatessen is a proper film with a story and everything, which isn't always the case with French cinema. The City of Lost Children offers a million wonderful rewards for its audience, but you'll look in vain for a plot. I like watching the characters. I'm bowled over by the film's imagination and I love its world. However if you cut out everything that didn't advance the story, you'd be left with barely half an hour.
You've got Ron Perlman, a circus strongman who's looking for his four-year-old brother. When this film was made, Perlman was 45. If this were the kind of film one thinks about, I'd be wondering if "brother" weren't a mistranslation since Perlman's character isn't speaking his first language.
You've got the Octopus, a pair of conjoined twins who act as a sort of freakshow French Fagin, sending out children to steal for them. One of their employees is Miette, our heroine. The Octopus also has associates like the man with killer performing fleas.
All this is good, but less dynamic are the weirdos on the oil rig. This is a squabbling Gormenghast-like family of Krank the mad scientist, a brain in a tank, a dwarf and six cloned Dominique Pinons. I got bored by Gormenghast and I wasn't wild about this lot either. Krank is kidnapping children to steal their dreams, but this is much less interesting than it sounds. There's precious little kidnapping and not many dreams either, although I was impressed by the ones we do see. Santa Claus was particularly freaky, I thought.
The frustrating thing is that every single scene in this film is wonderful. The craftsmanship and imagination that's gone into this thing is unbelievable. It's just a shame to see it settle for being French when we know Jeunet and Caro are capable of so much more. Everyone on the oil rig is a joy to watch, every last one of them as great as Dominique Pinon. I love Pinon. Here you've got six of him, not counting the diver. It's just that nothing that happens on the oil rig ever seems to make any difference to anything, despite its charm and strangeness.
I like the way the film defies genre. You'd have to call it a fantasy, given the richness of its invention and surrealism, but looking for reasons to justify this classification is like trying to nail down smoke. The only thing here which couldn't exist in the real world would be the brain in a tank and even that's small potatoes compared with even a run-of-the-mill superhero comic. Maybe the killer performing fleas are pushing it, but then again the idea of performing fleas is pretty freaky in itself and they really exist. Instead of trying to show us science-fiction, this film delights in quirky details and a universe designed by Rube Goldberg. I like the things they do with animals. I laughed at the trick with the dog, the rope and the basket of sausages, but even more contrived is the mouse and its magnet. Ridiculous chains of causality can save our heroes' lives and that's okay, because that kind of madness is what the film's celebrating.
The film also makes fun use of CGI. We have killer performing flea-o-vision and intelligent green dream-stealing gas. The camera will often follow something through the air in extreme close-up, making mundane things seem astonishing. At one point they do that with a crying person's tear.
The oil rig folks are fun, but in need of an editor. The Octopus is always good to watch, but the film's heart lies with Ron Perlman and Judith Vittet. At the time it reminded me of Luc Besson's Leon from the year before. Both films are very French in that they sexualise a relationship between a man and a little girl. Nothing happens, obviously. Vittet here is three years younger than even Natalie Portman was in 1994. However her worldly little Miette sleeps next to Perlman, has something with him that could be called pillow talk, puts earrings against her ears and is annoyed when she finds him with a woman. She even asks what kind of wife he's looking for. To get away with this highly dodgy material, both films make their men strong and physically dangerous (circus strongman or assassin), but also simple-minded and not very interested in women.
Believe it or not, I really liked all that. The Vittet-Perlman relationship is well played from both actors and manages to bear all these overtones without ever being creepy. Crucially Perlman's character doesn't have a clue. He's just a big strong lunk trying to do the right thing.
Incidentally, Jeunet is one of those directors who like working with the same people a lot. Actors you'll see again in other Jeunet movies include Dominique Pinon, Rufus, Ticky Holgado, Jean-Claude Dreyfus and Ron Perlman. Those of you who've seen The Fifth Element might also be interested to know that Jean-Claude Gaultier also did the costumes for this film, although he's being less off-the-wall this time.
This film may be fantasy, but it's not airy-fairy. There's death, including a bit where someone sticks a knife into his friend's eyepiece. Didn't I mention the organisation of secret police with green night-vision eyepieces and hearing so hypersensitive that it's their achilles heel? Oh, and at one point, topless women run out of a club.
At the end of the day, this is a wonderful work of artistry that you're not even supposed to expect to make sense. It's fascinated by its freaks and wonders. You're not meant to ask why Bearded Pinon turns up on the oil rig at the same time as Vittet and Perlman for the final act, or to wonder about the logic of that "let me take his place in the dream" at the end. No, you're meant to be admiring the quirkiness of the musical stairs, the execution by seagull and the boy who eats and bites everything. Personally I think it's an astonishing cinematic achievement. This is the kind of film that inspires people to call it their all time favorite movie, unlike anything they've ever seen or experienced before, something they'll cherish the memory of watching for the rest of their lives. However a lot of the time I didn't really care about what was happening and got a bit bored.