Nightmare Ally

The City of Lost Children begins with one of the more creepy dream sequences I've ever seen in a movie. A child sits in a crib in a glowingly lighted room that's decorated for Christmas in warm Victoriana. Sure enough, Santa emerges from the fireplace; and then, seconds later, another Santa follows him, then a third, and soon more Santas are coming through the door, and the room is milling with grinning, leering Saint Nicks, and a reindeer is crapping on the floor, and the kid is crying. Then, when he wakes up, we see that his "reality" is more nightmarish yet--he's a captive in a mad scientist's lab.

Said scientist is Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who conducts experiments in a huge, ominous offshore derrick, with the help of a diminutive lab assistant (Mireille Mosse) and six effusively eager-to-please clones (all played by Dominique Pinon). The doctor also receives occasional kibitzing from a disembodied brain named Irvin (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant), floating in a tank.

The object of the dour, temperamental Krank's work is to find a cure for the strange affliction by which he is plagued: his inability to dream. In this movie's world, dreaming is the currency of humanity--if you can't dream, it means you have no soul. Krank hopes to appropriate a child's dream for his own.

The city of the title may be Krank's grim rig, or it may be the nameless, grimy, fog-shrouded waterfront town nearby. Lost street urchins swarm like rats in this warren of piers and alleys and faceless brick walls. They're stalked by members of an order of religious fanatics called the Cyclops because they've each had a video camera installed in place of an eye, presumably to let their leader (Serge Merlin) monitor what they see. The Cyclops members are in the employ of Krank, supplying his lab with kidnaped kiddiewinkies.

When the Cyclops abducts the little brother (Joseph Lucien) of an arcade strong man known only as One (Ron Perlman), One is frantic with grief. He falls in with a gang of orphans led by a beautiful, raven-haired 9year-old named Miette (Judith Vittet), that is in thrall to the Octopus, Siamese twins whose Dickensian orphanage is a front for a larceny ring.

The plot, insofar as it can be summarized, concerns One and Miette trying to elude both the Cyclops and the Octopus--who are in league with the owner (JeanClaude Dreyfus) of a circus of trained-assassin fleas whose sting carries a mind-control drug--so that they can mount a rescue attempt on Krank's laboratory. Along the way, they bond with each other and gain the alliance of the clones' matrix--now an amnesiac submariner (Pinon again, of course) scavenging junk from the bottom of the bay. Got all that?

If not, don't worry. I'm not sure I'm getting all the relationships and motivations right, anyway. Much of the narrative has the skewed, shifting nonlogic of a dream and, like a dream, it all seems to make sense while you're watching it, but the specifics seem a little hazy when you think about it later.

The City of Lost Children is the second feature by the French filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, who made an impressive debut in 1991 with Delicatessen, a wild, scary piece of absurdist sci-fi comedy set in a tenement over a butcher shop after the Apocalypse. Like Delicatessen, only more so, The City of Lost Children is a feast of a movie, a banquet table groaning under the weight of its imaginative abundance--too many characters, colliding subplots, sentiment, bizarre visual ideas, slapstick so surreal and grandly scaled that it seems almost somber.

While Jeunet and Caro have some obvious influences--Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, possibly a dash of David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, certainly a pinch or two of Spielberg and Fellini--these two young madmen have a vision all their own. The former directs the actors, the latter concentrates on the scenic elements, and the resulting atmosphere is pungent yet magical.

For all of Jeunet and Caro's cleverness and precision and seamless technical trickery, Lost Children is never merely clever--it's also surprisingly warm and human. The characters, while presented in a stylized way, are real human beings. Though Perlman resembles a comic-book illustration come to life, his inarticulate pain is completely convincing (his French is rendered in the subtitles in a mangled form, suggesting he's supposed to be a foreigner).

There's something enormously touching about Pinon's bubbly solicitude as the clones, and even Emilfork manages to get some withered pathos into his performance as the forbidding doctor. Vittet is startling as Miette, although I'm getting a bit thin on the French fantasy of a yearning pre-Romantic love affair between a beautiful little girl and a grown man--somehow, it's even more annoyingly patronizing than it is perverse.

This is a tiny quibble, however. Overall, I enjoyed The City of Lost Children more than any French film I've seen since Patrice Chereau's wonderfully juicy (and very different) Queen Margot last winter. Because of its (nongory) horrific elements and some very brief seminudity, the film has landed an Rrating, but it would likely delight more imaginative children. For that reason, it's one of the few foreign movies I wish was available in a dubbed version.

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