I wrote this paper for a class last semester. I don't really know where else to put this and a friend asked to see my paper, so I am putting it here.
City of Lost Children: A Critical Analysis
In today’s cynical world of consumerism, childhood is an unrealistic nostalgia target. Children grow up too quickly and adults pine for the freedom from responsibility of youth. Innocence has given way to cynicism and everything is greed and self-interest. Is it any wonder that Jeunet and Caro’s City of Lost Children reflects this and takes it to the extreme? In the titular city, children are exploited by adults and thrust out of childhood at an early age; their youth seen as nothing more than a means to an end. A cult acts with impunity in abducting small children in exchange for technology that they believe lets them see the real world. A mad scientist named Krank buys the abducted children from the cult and only wants the children’s dreams. A pair of Faganesque conjoined twins run an orphanage as a thieves’ guild and care nothing for the children in their care beyond the money they bring in. The police force is absent or ineffectual at protecting the children of the city. In City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro succeeded in making a world that is both fully realized and surreal.
Viewers are thrust into this world with an immediate sense of unease. The eponymous city lies firmly entrenched in the uncanny valley; it is realized enough to feel real but with enough off that the viewer knows something is wrong. The city is wonderfully realized as a nightmare reflection of the real world taken to the extreme. The feeling of unease is conveyed through the use of set design, camera angles, the soundtrack, and post-production effects. There are only a few times where the perception of foreboding and maliciousness abate giving the viewer a respite.
The world of City of Lost Children is limited to an oilrig and an unnamed port town, but in these two settings Juenet and Caro have managed to create a fully realized and consistent world; the port town was built entirely on a single, huge, indoor set. Although this is the case, the viewer is never quite certain of the layout of the city; how it all ties together with the many different catwalks and alleyways is never made clear. Adding to the unease, the city has a very claustrophobic and imposing feel to it; the alleyways, streets, and catwalks are all narrow and cramped, the high walls of the town and the ships in the harbor loom ominously, giving a sense that you aren’t safe even in your own home; indeed this is shown to be the case early on. While the protagonist, One, played by Ron Perlman is mourning the death of his employer, he is attacked and his adopted little brother, his “petit frere,” Denree, is abducted. Shortly after, One breaks into the orphanage and, due to his strength, gets roped into assisting the orphans with a heist. During the entire film, only one police officer is shown, and he is shown in a slapstick manner that the children have no respect for nor fear of. This is not a safe city in which to live.
Juenet and Caro use several camera techniques to convey the sense of maliciousness of the city and unease of the characters. Many shots throughout the film are done with canted angles giving a sense that all is not right with the world; combined with shadows reminiscent of German Expressionism, the feeling is spot on. While One is at first chasing after and then fleeing from the cultists who have abducted Denree, the shots are from static, canted angles, sometimes low, and sometimes form overhead. These canted angles convey the sense of nervousness and fear that One is experiencing during the scene.
POV shots are used extensively throughout the film to convey the attitude or intent of the subject; at different times the camera represents the view of a flea, cultists, One and his compatriot, Miette, and a brain in a fish tank named Irvin, whose view is represented with a fish eye lens. According to Jeunet in the director’s commentary on the DVD, the POV shot representing the flea hopping was done with “a steady-cam on a board.” The cultists, called Cyclops, are blind yet they have a mechanical eye that allows them to see, and a microphone that gives them enhanced hearing. When the shot changes to the subjective view of a cultist, the frame is given a technological filter reminiscent of Terminator. Along with this, the soundtrack becomes subjective; the non-diegetic music drops out, a mechanical hum is introduced, and the sound effects are heightened, increasing the tinniness. All these effects give the cultists a robot, unfeeling sense. By contrast, the POV shots representing the subjective view of Irvin is done with a fisheye lens giving him a softer, less threatening feel.
The soundtrack, provided by Angelo Baldamenti, has a whimsical feel to it that, at times, almost feels at odds with the on screen images. When directing Baldamenti, Jeunet told him that “[t]he film is somber, the idea is not to darken it but rather to elevate it, to make it lyrical" (qtd. in Schlokoff and Karani). This whimsy is often broken by a deep bass line lending darkness to the music. The fairy-tale-like soundtrack is important to help ease the tension during those brief respites from the action; there is a particularly sweet scene in which One and Miette are traveling through the town. The budding relationship is explored several times through conversations underscored by Baldamenti’s score. The cynical and rather adult-like Miette has obviously fallen in love with the adult though childlike and innocent One, who views Miette as his little sister; his “petit souer” in comparison to his “petit frere,” Denree. They are an unconventional family, though one of love and respect, in a world that lacks conventional families. Through the way One speaks, in third person, it is implied that he is developmentally challenged, the childlike strongman. It should be noted that Perlman did not speak any French at the time of filming; all of his lines were fed to him by Caro, and he recited them phonetically with an unspecified Baltic accent. These choices give the character of One a sense that he is a fish out of water. The relationship between One and Miette is one that would not be tolerated in the real world, many read a sexual connotation into it, though there is none present due to One’s ignorance “of the sexual nuances in various interchanges with Miette” (Webb and Schirato). The relationship, on the part of One, is purely familial, not even in his dreams does it touch on perversion.
Dreams, which are a huge element of the film, are dealt with in the literal sense, and therefore Jeunet and Caro had to differentiate them from the reality of the film world. The film opens with a Christmas scene and at first the viewer believes this be a part of the reality of the film. As multiple Santa Clauses start entering the scene, the frame and the soundtrack begin to warp, turning the dream into a literal nightmare. These effects were accomplished in post-production and convey the feeling of a nightmare clearly. When in the dream world, the viewer does not have a definite sense of what is possible and this unknown quality causes tension. Krank’s downfall comes in the dream world; Miette tricks him and in a bit of repetitive cutting, a child version of Krank is picked up and placed into the dream machine. Over and over again. The rhythm of the cutting progressively speeds up to the point where the two actions seem to become one. At this point the inherent unease present in nightmares becomes too much; Krank’s mind breaks and he dies.
Aside from the visual warping, temporal warping is used to differentiate a flashback in a dream from reality. The flashback is used to convey some background of Krank and his creator; it is differentiated through the uses of slow-motion and fast-motion photography. According to Jeunet in the director’s commentary, this was done while shooting by using a “Prestonbox”; actually called a FI+Z Remote Lens Control System from Preston Cinema Systems that, among other things, allows the filmmaker to adjust the frame rate during shooting.
Finally, the color palette of the film was conspicuously chosen to give different areas different feels. The laboratory of the mad scientist, Krank, has a green tint to it, giving it a sickly feel. The lair of the Cyclops is full of deep reds and oranges, with accents of fire, reflecting the cult’s menacing nature. The city has vivid browns and muted primary colors; in addition with the ever present fog and the film always seeming to take place at night, this gives the city a gloom and surreal nature that pervades the film. In keeping with the otherworldly feel of the color palette, according to Perlman in the commentary, the actors’ makeup was “almost . . . white clown face”. When the skin tone was corrected in post-production, all the other colors became more vivid and skewed. The color palette gives the reality of the film world an almost dreamlike nature.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro successfully created a film world that feels real but at the same time feels like fantasy. This careful balance lends itself to the surreal nature of the narrative. Through the use of different filming techniques, camera angles, set design, post-production effects, and sound design, Jeunet and Caro convey unease and surrealism into the film. It is an enjoyable film filled with diesel-punk, science-fiction tropes, fantasy tropes, and a sweet innocent romance between a childlike adult and an adult-like child. A film dealing with dreams cannot help but have the film world become dreamlike. Jeunet and Caro leaned into this tendency and fully realized the setting of the world. It is not a world one would enjoy living in, but it is a convincing world to visit in a film. I am always willing to revisit La cité des enfants perdus.
1. First scene. Dream/nightmare of child. Brief introduction of antagonists.
2. Fun fair. Introduces One, Denree, orphans, Cyclops, and knowledge of missing children. One’s employer is killed.
3. One’s home. One mourns employer, Denree is abducted. One chases Cyclops and meets Miette.
4. Birthday party for Irvin on oilrig. Krank interrupts and Irvin tells background of oilrig inhabitants.
5. Octopus’s orphanage. Octopus collects loot from orphans, explains new target for heist, one breaks in fleeing from guard dog, gets pulled into heist.
6. Heist. Mouse is used to retrieve key and One carries safe while running from police.
7. Docks emptying safe. One drops safe into water after hearing Cyclops, goes chasing after. Miette tells other orphans to return to Octopus and she follows One. We learn how One and Denree met.
8. Octopus’s kitchen. Octopus contemplates how to get rid of Miette.
9. Oilrig. A clone speaks with Irvin and is convinced to enter into dream machine while other clones tell Krank a story. Irvin is using the clone in order to send a message. A fuse containing the message breaks and is thrown into the sea.
10. Cyclops’ lair. One and Miette infiltrate, learn abducted children are being given to a clone and the little woman. One and Miette are captured, sentenced to execution.
11. Octopus’ orphanage. A Cyclops cultist sells jewelry taken from Miette and information regarding execution.
12. Oilrig. Krank has conversation with Irvin and then begins to dress as Santa Clause.
13. Marcello’s. Marcello, trained fleas, and mind control serum introduced.
14. Oilrig. Krank pretends to be Santa, makes children cry.
15. Docks. Miette and One are set to be executed; One is saved by Marcello while Miette falls into water and into the arms of a man in a diving suit.
16. Diver’s lair. Miette is brought to the diver’s lair and resuscitated when the diver steps on her hand. Map on minefield and tattooed man are mentioned.
17. Bar. Marcello and One are at bar. One laments Miette’s death, Marcello calls Octopus. One begins drinking with woman.
18. City/bar. Miette leaves diver’s lair, meets other orphans, and saves One from being taken to Octopus.
19. Cargo hold. One and Miette talk about One’s past, go to sleep for night.
20. Diver’s Lair/city. Fuse breaks open releasing message. Flash back of professor and oilrig. Message travels through town finally reaching Miette.
21. Oilrig. Children are delivered to oilrig, Denree and Krank meet, Krank speaks to Denree.
22. Marcello’s. Octopus attacks Marcello, takes fleas and music box.
23. City. One and Miette search for tattooed man, discuss future, and walk through town. One gets tattoo and tattooed man found.
24. Docks. One and Miette are caught by Octopus, ship crashes into docks.
25. City/Marcello’s home. Flea returns to Marcello.
26. Docks. Octopus’ demise, One and Miette are saved by Marcello.
27. Oilrig. Protagonists converge on oilrig, infiltrate, One falls.
28. Krank’s Dream. Miette enters Krank’s dream, takes Denree’s place. Krank dies.
29. Oilrig. One finds Miette, they escape oilrig with children before it is blown up by the professor.
“Jean-Pierre Juenet and Ron Perlman Commentary” (supplemental material on DVD release). City of Lost Children. Dir. Jean-Pierre Juenet and Marc Caro. Perfs. Ron Perlman, Dominique Pinon. 1995. DVD. Sony Pictures Classics. 2007.
Schlockoff, Alain, and Cathy Karani. “Excerpts from a conversation with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro”. Sony Pictures Classics. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. < http://www.sonyclassics.com/city/misc/interview.html>
Webb, Jen, and Tony Schirato. "Disenchantment and the City of Lost Children." Canadian Journal of Film Studies 13.1 (2004): 55+. Questia. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.