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The City Of Lost Children (1995)
Directors: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

review by Andrew Darlington

A trio of Santas... A plague of Santas... A carnival of freaks in a steampunk retro-futurism... Think Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini... or Universal horror. There are feral orphans in a visually-intriguing richly-detailed Dickensian Terry Gilliam port city, with Siamese-twin sister Fagins. When one sister inhales from a cigarette, the other one exhales the smoke. The runaway kids use a mouse with a magnet attached to its tail to retrieve keys in order to burgle the moneylender's safe.

And Ron Perlman is 'One' - the hulking 'Addams family' strongman in green from the street-fair. When this former whale-harpooner heard the whales sing, he knew he could harpoon no more. You know Perlman from Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest For Fire (1981), or as the hunchback Salvatore in the same director's The Name Of The Rose (1986). After The City Of Lost Children, Perlman went on to work with its director - Jean-Pierre Jeunet (whose previous work includes the lyrical Amelie, 2001), in the disappointing Alien: Resurrection (1997). He's the Hollywood outsider incisively cast as Harley Davidson biker Clarence 'Clay' Morrow in TV's Sons Of Anarchy.

But here, Perlman's the amiable oaf questing through the labyrinthine city for his lost little adopted brother 'Grub' Denree (Joseph Lucien). While, cyber-villains - a cyclops-augmented Borg-like cult, track him through green night-vision lenses. And luminously beautiful streetwise urchin 'Crumb' Miette (Judith Villet), a little girl in a red dress, links into an odd alliance to provide the alert intelligence that One lacks.

This subtitled French-language film is weirdly haunting, slow-paced, dreamily-poetic; somewhere between gothic horror and grim fairy tale. It's involved, and involving. The child-stealers occupy an oil-rig fortress beyond a floating minefield. Once, an inventor with "a gift for giving life" had created a princess here, but a bad-fairy gene caused her to be born just three inches tall. Then there are six clone-brothers, so similar you can hardly tell them apart. They are like Umpa-Lumpas revisioned by Tim Burton, while Irvin is a brain suspended in a cabinet of green nutrient fluids, a mollusc with a lens-eye, and they are all overseen by Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a mad doctor genius also grown from a test-tube, blighted by being incapable of dreaming. It's a flaw that causes him to grow old unimaginably fast, so he must steal the city's children, keep them wired into sarcophagi, and feed upon their dreams. His plan is somewhat soured by their terrified dreams fracturing into fevered nightmare, hence his attempt at a trio of Santas... A plague of Santas...

There's astonishingly intense cine-literate poetry in the dark imagery, and poetry in the dialogue. "A molecular study of your own tears might reveal the cause of your torments," or "the winkles unscrew their shells," or "I don't know if I'm swimming in the sky, or floating at the bottom of the sea." A narco-flea mesmerises dull-witted One, then a single teardrop chain-reactions to short-circuit the city. If it's intended as an extravagantly-elaborate allegory of the triumph of dream over soulless technology, or a fantastic future-nostalgia fable with glittering teeth, then it's too swamped in oddball gizmos to tell.

As a dark carnival of freaks in a steam-punk retro-futurism, its cluttered style soars over razor-cut linear substance, but if it doesn't always make literal sense, then that's hardly the point. Cast into a Captain Nemoesque sub-sea realm, Crumb learns the professor's amnesiac history. It was he who was the inventor with 'a gift for giving life,' leading the touchingly mismatched couple through the floating minefield towards a hazardous and explosive resolution. Will she enter the dreamscape voluntarily to rescue lost Denree? And yes, when she does, there's a magical metamorphosis - as the protagonists exchange each other's youth. Comically grotesque, as unique and beyond category as dreams are intended to be, City Of Lost Children has a diseased beauty all its own.

The City Of Lost Children

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press