Criminality & The Children’s Film

Here is another piece I wrote a year or two ago for the Cinematheque Internationale of Philadelphia.  We were doing our French Film series at the time, hence this article’s subject matter.  Again, I feel I must point out that this article is intended to contextualize The City Of Lost Children, not to analyze it. 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro completed and released their film The City Of Lost Children in 1995 to good reviews and a decent box office.  Yet The City Of Lost Children is by no means standard commercial fare.  The plot is a twisted fairy tale, set in a desolate future, about a deranged scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork) and the unlikely trio who work to stop him and his diabolical schemes.

Krank is no ordinary criminal; his crime is the theft of children’s dreams.  It’s his addiction, a necessity to prevent him from aging at an accelerated rate.  He presents himself as the villain akin to those of the cinema in the 1950s.  The best comparison being with that of Hans Conried’s character Dr. T in Roy Rowland’s film The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (from a screenplay by Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott).  Both villains abduct children for singular reasons, each being a necessity to his existence (in Dr. T’s case, a demented music teacher with a hatred of all instruments but the piano, of which he has constructed a giant one).  Likewise, both villains present a sexual ambiguity, adorning women’s bathrobes and make-up.  Krank is more easily perceived as a homosexual in this respect, since he lacks the female hostage Dr T makes of the protagonist’s (Bart, as played by Tommy Rettig) mother.  To further the comparison, each villain has bizarre and eccentric henchman, though Krank’s militia of evildoers posses a more violent behavior.  These differences may be just a sign of the times, but the similarities speak to a tradition in cinema and how it portrays villainy in children’s fairy tales (another example of this being the child abductor in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

The parallels between The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T and The City Of Lost Children become even more entangled when one examines their sets and cinematography.  Both pictures are decidedly dark (I must take Rowland’s film under consideration of the time it was produced), and the sets are maze like, and gigantic in scope.  But in regard to the style of set design, The City Of Lost Children prefers an urban-Gothic approach, dissimilar to the German Expressionist tendencies in The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T.  The time at which The City Of Lost Children was made also allows for special effects impossible in the fifties.  And thus a more palpable atmosphere is created, executed with a decidedly nightmarish intention.

The nightmare of The City Of Lost Children extends to its narrative.  Dr. T needed 5,000 fingers to play his giant piano, where as Krank has more sinister designs.  By the 1990s, the subject of pedophilia had become less taboo, and is surely alluded to in a majority of Krank’s scenes.  He seems to have an orgasmic reaction to the experience of his thievery, which makes him much less comic than Conried’s Dr. T.

The protagonists, out to save the children, in The City Of Lost Children are a motley pair.  Ron Pearlman plays One the strongman, and Judith Vittet plays a thief named Miette.  Their relationship also manifests itself as oddly sexual.  Though not as perverse as Krank, the two share a sexual relationship closer to that of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in The Professional by Luc Besson.  The journey in search of One’s little brother takes a narrative form closer to Vladimir Grammatikov’s film Mio mim Mio (1987) than that of The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T.  Both Mio mim Mio and The City Of Lost Children are based around a quest to save children from a singular villain (Christopher Lee plays the villain Kato in Mio mim Mio) and must overcome many obstacles along the way.  The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T is set in one location, and has a narrative structure of a musical game of cat and mouse as opposed to a quest in the classical sense.  All three films, each uniquely stylized, become twisted fairy tales on the screen.  But the one in which there is the most dramatic and philosophical layers is no doubt The City Of Lost Children.

The action and the style of action in The City Of Lost Children is the most coherently blended to its story and visual style of all three films mentioned above.   And it seems indisputable to attribute this accomplishment to the film’s directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.  In 1991 the two created a fantasy dark comedy called Delicatessen, for which they gained international acclaim.  But it is with City Of Lost Children, by no means a straight comedy; they achieved the height of their stylistic collaboration.  Later, the nuance of this style would inventively be applied to romantic use in Jeunet’s solo masterpiece Amelie (2001).

Because of this fantasy style of filmmaking, which Jeunet and Caro have made applicable to different genres, one may call them the Powell and Pressburger of 90s French cinema.  The City Of Lost Children is unique in it’s combination of styles and narrative devices; therefore probably the best of the Jeunet and Caro collaborations.  In cinema, it has gained a reputation as one of those films one must see sooner rather than later.

-Robert Curry

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