In a hospital on the outskirts of 1920s Los Angeles, an injured stuntman begins to tell a fellow patient, a little girl with a broken arm, a fantastic story of five mythical heroes. Thanks to his fractured state of mind and her vivid imagination, the line between fiction and reality blurs as the tale advances.
With a plan to exact revenge on a mythical shark that killed his partner, oceanographer Steve Zissou rallies a crew that includes his estranged wife, a journalist, and a man who may or may not be his son.
In a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, the son of the city's mastermind falls in love with a working class prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences.
Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who cannot dream, kidnaps young children to steal their dreams. One (Ron Perlman), a former whale hunter who is as strong as a horse, sets forth to search for Denree, his little brother who was kidnapped by Krank's men. Helped by young Miette (Judith Vittet), he soon arrives in La Cite des Enfants Perdus (The City of Lost Children). Written by
The words from The Original that Miette remembers in flashback (after she receives Uncle Irvin's dream message) differ slightly from what The Original actually said, although the point of the message is still the same. See more »
I can't help myself: I adore this film. I freely accept that it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea; if pushed, I might even accept that it's not perfect. But there's no film I love more, or more enjoy re-watching. One caveat though: I've seen both the subtitled and the dubbed print, and the English dubbing frankly comes close to ruining the movie. Ron Perlman dubs himself and is fine, and some of the other adult English actors are perfectly OK, though they tend to be blander than the French originals. But most of the children are terrible, and with her own voice it's Judith Vittet's extraordinary performance (all the more extraordinary considering she was nine at the time) that helps give "La Cité" the genuine emotional centre that some viewers don't feel it has.
But I'll come back to that. In any version, at least Jeunet and Caro's astonishing visual flair and artistry come over. I can't think of a film that has such a concentration of memorable shots - time and again, especially watching on DVD with a freeze-frame facility, you realize how many beautiful compositions Jean-Pierre Jeunet gives us: though the cast of characters could easily fill a freak show, and the sets are dark and quite unglamorous in themselves, the cinematography is gorgeous and the mise-en-scène often strangely elegant. It has a look all of its own, perfect for a modern, urban fairy-tale. The music too is gorgeous, one of the finest scores by David Lynch's regular musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti.
"Fairy tale" is I think the best generic starting-point for this film, so long as you think Grimm rather than Disney. (Unlike "Delicatessen", it isn't really a comedy, though it has comic elements). And the plot works according to its own logic, even if the progression from scene to scene is occasionally a bit lumpy or obscure. Krank (the astonishing Daniel Emilfork), grown prematurely old because he cannot dream, uses a cult of blind, messianic preachers to abduct children from a decaying industrial port and steal their dreams - but they have only nightmares, and Krank falls ever deeper into despair and evil. It's up to the orphan pickpocket Miette and a none-too-brainy circus strongman, One, to put a stop to him. This rich idea is elaborated with all sorts of visual conceits and eccentric characters - Jeunet mounts, for example, a couple of astonishing sequences in which chains of unlikely effects proceed from the smallest of causes - but never at the expense of the central relationship of One and Miette.
In a sense Miette, like Krank, has grown old too fast: the orphaned street-children of this city are savvy and unsentimental, and never seem to have had a childhood; meanwhile there's something deeply childish, in various ways, about most of the adults. Sensitively directed and never overacting, Judith Vittet's Miette gradually thaws, and Ron Perlman brings a lot of sympathy and pathos to what could have been an oafish, cartoonish role: Jeunet gives plenty of space and subtlety to their gradually-developing friendship, and dares to do what I suspect no English director would dare to do at the moment, which is to make their relationship innocently sexualized. Neither of them is really a grown-up, but it's still an extremely risky move, exploring the first stirrings of pre-pubescent sexuality while trying not to be exploitative or prurient. I do think the film pulls it off, though I can imagine some viewers feeling distinctly uncomfortable with it. For me it's one of the most convincingly unsentimental and nuanced (if mannered) portrayals of childhood I've ever seen on the screen, and there is real compassion and tenderness along the way, as well as some darker twists and turns.
It's a film that rewards analysis if you're prepared to surrender to its strange world with its strange rules. But it rewards the senses and the emotions too - and it radiates love of cinema as the perfect medium for sophisticated fantasy. One elderly actress who appears towards the end (Nane Germon) acted - as Jeunet's DVD commentary points out - in Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête" about fifty years earlier (there are, by the way, distinct references to the Beauty and the Beast story here), and "La Cité des enfants perdus" deserves to join that film as one of the classic cinematic fairy-tales. Pity about Marianne Faithfull over the closing credits, though!
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