A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 218 – The City of Lost Children

The City of Lost Children – October 4th, 2010

This is a very odd film. I adore it, but it is odd. The best way I can think to describe it is as a French steampunk fairy tale. Take Bioshock (yes, the video game), and make it a movie, but take away the failed utopia and replace it with Dark City, add a dash of Inception, then add six Dominique Pinions. The essence of this movie is so fascinating to me. It’s a fantastical setting full of stylized figures and characters dealing with a bizarre and unsettling plot. It’s so difficult for me to sum up because it defies many of the conventions I’m familiar with. I suspect if I knew more French cinema I might be better equipped with the right vocabulary. As it is, I’m left groping.

There is, right from the outset, a very dream-like quality to it all. This is fitting, since the movie’s plot hinges upon dreams, or the lack thereof. Ostensibly our main characters are a carnival strong man, named One, and a young thief, named Miette, but how and why One and Miette end up working together is all due to a scientist named Krank and his inability to dream on his own. He lives in a giant off-shore lab with a tiny woman, six clones and a brain in a tank, and he hires a local cult to kidnap children so he can steal their dreams using a special and incredibly complex machine that involves gears and levers and giant fuses. One of the kidnapped children is Dunree, the adopted little brother of One. And so One goes to find him and from there is gets complicated.

But when I say it’s dream-like, I mean that it all feels slightly off, but sensible in its own reality. There’s a flat out acknowledgement of the fairy tale quality of the story, when the brain tells Krank a story:

“Once upon a time there was an inventor so gifted that he could create life. A truly remarkable man. Since he had no wife or children he decided to create them in his laboratory. He started with wife and fashioned her into the most beautiful princess in the world. Alas, a wicked genetic fairy cast a spell on the inventor so much so that the princess was only knee height or less. He then cloned six children in his own image, faithful, hardworking. They were so alike no one could tell them apart. But fate tricked him again, giving them all sleeping sickness. Craving someone to talk to he grew in a fish-tank a poor migraine-ridden brain. And then at last he created his masterpiece more intelligent then the most intelligent man on Earth. But alas the inventor made a serious mistake. While his creation was intelligent he never ever had a dream. You can’t image how quickly he grew old, because he was so unhappy. Then the poor masterpiece became so crazed he believed a single tear drop could save him. And after committing many cruel deeds he died, never knowing what it was to dream.”

See how I quoted that in its entirety? That’s because that truly is the origin of the six clones, the tiny woman, the brain in the tank and the man who can’t dream. It’s not a made up story about them within the movie’s reality. It’s the real story. Krank is a tragic villain, desperate for that which he cannot have. Those around him are desperate to help him but unable to do much more than his bidding. And then there’s the brain, Irvin. Irvin doesn’t want to help Krank. Irvin wants it all to be over.

So on one front we have the mid-ocean lab full of these created characters going about their terrible and tragic deeds, and on the other front we have One, banding together with Miette to find his little brother and rescue him from the clutches of the cult and then Krank and his family. The cult is a group of men with steampunk style prosthetic eyes and ears, all gears and wires and brass, and their leader preaches about sin and the salvation of the world through sight. And then there are the conjoined twins who rule over the thieves guild Miette was a member of, and the carnival workers they know and use to get Miette back. It’s a movie full of sinister caricatures where the only people One can trust are children. One himself is somewhat childlike, being more direct and innocent than any of the other adults in the movie, including the clones, who are more bumbling than evil. One has not an ounce of guile in him, whereas Miette is somewhat world-weary.

The entire setting of the movie lends itself to the dream/fantasy feel of it all. The city is full of narrow canals and steep staircases and walkways. It seems as if the city itself is built in the water, but has become so crowded it’s difficult to see it much of the time. The borders are uncertain. There’s always fog over the water and it’s never daytime. Everything is in shades of brown and sickly green, with Miette’s red dress and One’s turquoise sweater as bright spots.

I’m probably not doing a very good job capturing this movie and presenting it to anyone who hasn’t seen it already. I apologize. It’s a movie I think is thoroughly worth watching for many reasons, such as the premise, the atmosphere, Ron Perlman as One, Judith Vittet as Miette, Dominique Pinion as the clones and really, everything. But it is a singular piece of work in our collection. I can try to mash together other works to describe it, with a bit of steampunk and a bit of fairytale and a bit of doomsaying and an odd Victorian/1940s vibe, but we own nothing else that takes all of that or any given combination of that, and comes out like this. It is beautiful and haunting and I highly recommend it.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The City of Lost Children

October 4,2010

The City of Lost Children

I think I bought this movie way back in the nineties because I had seen enigmatic and tantalizing previews. Previews which featured a testimonial by Terry Gilliam. I had no idea, however, what to expect from my purchase. What I got, of course, was this indescribable and strange fairy tale.

How to even begin to capture this movie? It starts with dreams I suppose. In an offshore lab reminiscent of an oil derrick a mad scientist has been kidnapping children and trying to steal their dreams because he has none of his own. He’s waited on by a rubber faced group of clones, a tiny woman with huge hair, and a depressive brain in a fish tank. The children come from the city near the lab – the city of lost children. It’s an entire world unto itself. A strange cyberpunk circa 1940 port city full of precarious buildings and bridges over murky canals.

The folk doing the kidnapping are a group called the cyclops who are all blind men with mechanical eyes. One day they kidnap a little boy who has been working in a fun fair with a big slow apish strongman. The strongman – called only One – sets out to find his petit frere. Along the way he befriends a little girl who has been heading a gang of child thieves at the behest of a greedy pair of conjoined twins who call themselves The Octopus.

If all of that begins to sound a little strange then you are beginning to understand the magical feel of this movie. It has an opium addicted organ grinder who has a collection of tamed flees. It has a raving blind priest in the boiler room of a great ship. It has wild rube-goldbergian plot contrivances where the smallest thing can have enormous consequences. And throughout the entire movie there is a pervasive mood of melancholy and unease. It’s not just the children that are lost in this strange city but all the populace.

What captures me most about this movie is the way the story is told. For the most part it is the story of One and his quest to rescue his little brother, but it is also an exploration of this strange lost world filled with circus freaks and steampunk technology. (All the devices and technology in the movie are full of gears and tiny hydraulics and vacuum tubes.) There is a whole history to the scientist Krank and his clone henchmen, which unfolds as the movie progresses. There’s very little exposition in the movie, certainly no dialog that ever explains anything. (Except a quick fairy story told to Krank by Irvin – the brain in a tank.) You have to glean the history behind the characters from their interactions and what little glimpses of the past you are provided.

The movie is also practically a showcase of unusual and strange-looking people. There’s the beak-nosed and terrifying Daniel Emilfork as Krank. There’s the rubber-faced Dominique Pinon who plays all the clones (and one other pivotal character later on.) There’s the distinctive Ron Pearlman as the childlike giant One. There’s little person actress Mireille Mosse as the sort of mother figure on the lab. All provide memorable and fantastic performances which make this strange world come to life.

Everything about this movie is a unique piece of art. From the design of Irvin’s mechanical tank to the look of the city itself. The special effects were absolutely the best to be had at any price back in 1995 and have not aged a day. From the bits of complex CGI to the many tricks employed to allow Dominiqur Pinon to play seven parts on screen at the same time. The effects are such that most of the time you’d think the directors had simply found some way to film all these impossible things (like the killer fleas) practically and on the set.

Special thanks to the madmen at the helm of this entire creation. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet only did a couple films together but still in my mind Jeunet et Caro are the Coen Brothers of French cinema. They created feverish dreamscapes on film in a way that has never been duplicated. We own another Jeunet film (Amelie) but for some reason have never bought Delicatessen. That is something we must rectify one day.

From beginning to end this enchanting fairy tale is so mesmerising and unique that I can’t help being completely absorbed by it all over again every time we watch it. It’s a crazy dream and a sad freakish world with a story of big hearted steadfast determination set in it. It was a delight to visit it once again tonight – and now I’m off to play some Bioshock.

October 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment