This 1995 film, by quirky French film-makers Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, is neither horror nor science fiction nor fantasy nor comedy, but a beautifully realised and seamless combination of all four. It is the stuff of all our dreams and nightmares: it simultaneously beguiles and threatens, invites hope and denies it, it is both technicolour bright and dangerously dark.
The story is, like most good tales, very simple: deranged scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) is kidnapping children in order to steal their dreams, simply because he cannot dream himself. Denree, the younger brother of circus strongman One (played by Ron Perlman), is one of the kidnapped children and so, along with a young orphan girl called Miette (Judith Vittet), One sets out to rescue him. And that really is all there is to it.
Stylistically, however, it’s a different story. It’s a bande dessinée made real, a comic-book in the European style brought to three-dimensional life. Everything is exaggerated and over-emphasised, and the sets have been designed in such a way that it is both mittel-Européenne fairytale in character whilst at the same time hugely threatening and unsavoury. The colours in the film are primary yet they are simultaneously deeply muted, and edged with an undercurrent of menace and jeopardy. It isn’t a place where normal, decent people would choose to live. The buildings are tall and narrow, the windows glower down on streets which are twisty and perilous, and the docklands are always fogbound, dark and lit with a weak moon and pale lamplight.
On top of that, Jean-Paul Gaultier is credited with costume design and the French, as we all know, possess a deeply ingrained sense of style and flair. The film, especially the scenes set in Krank’s oil-rig based laboratory, appear to prefigure the current Steampunk fad to some extent. Certainly there’s enough of the rusty, creaky and hastily cobbled-together look about it to point in that direction. Nothing shiny and bleepy in here. In combination, it’s a gorgeous visual feast of a film.
It’s a classic story, about how we, as adults, have lost our innocence and imagination, our ability to see the world through childlike eyes of wonder. Taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, plus peer and familial pressures, force us to put away or discard altogether the toys of childhood and to walk the path that everyone else is made to walk. We are made to feel that, in clinging on to our childhoods and the dreams we fostered in them, we are somehow remiss as people, and that we are inevitably incomplete and immature.
This is where the horror comes in: the realisation that we have irretrievably lost those dreams and that some people will go to any lengths to find, and relive, them again. Obviously, most of us aren’t going to kidnap children and steal their dreams for real: nevertheless, it would be true to say that society, and the way that it educates our children (or preparing them for adulthood, as they would put it), really does snatch their dreams and wishes away from them. The idea that, as we grow older, the more we’re taught about the world and how it works, the blunter our sense of wonder becomes. That is the nightmare.
Krank steals the dreamlives of children because they don’t have a clue about how reality works. The world is a hard and sometimes cruel place, a place that many of us despise for those very reasons. There is a feeling that Krank’s reasoning is that, by doing what he does, he will blunt the sharp edges. The problem with that is that, if we were all to return to a state of childhood wonder and awe, then nothing would get done. That is why, presumably, Krank is ultimately returned to the state of being a baby. It reminds us that, however idyllic the idea is, in the end it wouldn’t do us any good.
On another level, given the dreadful instances of paedophilia being brought to light that appear to assail us on a regular basis in the news, one wonders whether there’s a reflection of that in City of Lost Children. I don’t think there is, but the stealing of innocence, as portrayed in the film, can certainly be taken as a metaphor for that heinous crime, albeit at a stretch.
The film itself caused a bit of a fuss when first released, because of the nature of the relationship between the characters of One and Miette. Apparently people interpreted it as inappropriately sexual; even Ron Perlman was reportedly uncomfortable at the connotations of the relationship. Jeunet & Caro, when they were interviewed about it, averred that during the making of the film itself they were unaware of the inferences, only realising it could be interpreted as such when they were in the editing phase.
I think that’s stretching it too far – the film itself is very fairtytale-like in treatment and quality, and is all about the loss of innocence through the kidnapping of children and then the stealing of their dreams. We, as western societies, sometimes look far too deeply at these kind of films and assign subtexts to them that simply aren’t there (I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else, however). In more innocent times, such as when fairytales were a means to entertain children as well as educate them, such friendships between an adult and child were less prone to being interpreted in such a manner. City of Lost Children is, in essence, nothing more than an updating of some familiar tropes and themes from such tales, at least in my view.
Regardless, it’s a wonderful film, shot and realised with a typically European flair that somehow Hollywood has yet to emulate properly. It’s inventive, has larger than life archetypal characters peopling its surreal landscape, and is woven around a story that everyone, from children to adults, can find meaning in. It’s funny (especially in those sequences starring Dominique Pinon, star of Jeunet & Caro’s other hit film, Delicatessen), moving and scary all at the same time. If you’ve never seen it, then may I suggest that you rectify that oversight as soon as possible?