Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s two feature collaborations are the stuff of dreams. Their films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children are two of the most inventive and magical films ever made. Sadly, their working relationship broke down soon after Jeunet was hired to direct Alien Resurrection, for which Caro did some art direction, mainly the costume designs. The City of Lost Children would be their magnum opus, and while Jeunet has never directed a bad film and would later have his biggest commercial hit with Amélie (even bigger than Alien Resurrection), it was never the same without Caro.
The world that The City of Lost Children inhabits is a retrofuturist nightmare that’s not that dissimilar to the worlds in which Terry Gilliam’s films, like Brazil or 12 Monkeys, are set. In this case it’s more retro than futurist, and many have classified The City of Lost Children as belonging to the subgenre known as steampunk. Gilliam actually lent his name to the film’s US release with his blurb: “The most astounding visuals of 1995, 1996 and maybe 1982. I loved It!” Both Caro and Jeunet always admitted to having been influenced by Gilliam; amusingly, more recently Jeunet lambasted Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water for “ripping him off” and actually emailed Del Toro with his grievance (all three are friends) –Guillermo simply wrote back saying, “we owe Terry Gilliam everything.”.
In a nutshell, the film has a pretty simple plot: Krank (Daniel Emilfork) can’t dream, so he kidnaps children to harvest their dreams. His band of clones (all played by Dominique Pinon) and a cyborg cult called the Cyclops help him with his plans. They end up kidnapping Denree (Joseph Lucien), the adopted little brother of carnival strongman One (Ron Perlman). One is joined by a little girl called Miette (Judith Vittet) in an attempt to find Denree and the other missing children.
The film is a dazzling fantasy, with some of the most awe-inspiring production design you’ve ever seen— and thank god it was made at a time when it was all done in camera, and they had to build this lavish set of the port town. I liked Jeunet’s most recent film, Bigbug, but there was too much reliance on CGI in the production design for my liking. I’ve never wanted to live in a dystopian hellhole more than the one portrayed in The City of Lost Children (sorry, Terry.) The greens and reds that Caro and Jeunet use in the colour scheme are what both dreams and nightmares are made of. The costumes from Jean Paul Gaultier are my favourites of the films he has been the costume designer on—I’m not big on sweaters, but I’ve always wanted the sweater Ron Perlman wears in this. I’m sure Gaultier’s fee isn’t small but more films should hire him to do costumes, his later work on The Fifth Element and with Almodóvar is also great.
Perlman gives one of his more memorable performances here… and to think he had to learn all his lines phonetically, since he didn’t speak French. Rutger Hauer and Javier Bardem both were also considered for the role of One. Perlman looks like he could’ve been a strongman, but also has the kindness to his demeanour that is required for the role. He would play a strongman again more recently in Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley. Judith Vittet gives one of the great child performances in The City of Lost Children. She appeared in two more films but moved into costume design, including a gig on Jeunet’s underrated A Very Long Engagement. I like the fact that she just packed it in, which immortalises her role even more. As always, Pinon is an absolute delight, and Emilfork brings both a real sense of menace but also a deep sadness to the role of Krank.
If you’ve never seen The City of Lost Children, you are missing out on one of the greatest films of the last 30 years. I wish more films would be willing to let pure imagination be on show instead of striving for “realism.” I also hope that one day Caro and Jeunet will collaborate again on something, but for now we can only dream about what could be should they reunite.
The City of Lost Children looks gorgeous in 4K, and the colour scheme has been slightly tweaked compared to the previous release to be more subtle, which was what Jeunet and Caro intended. The 4K disc includes a commentary track from Jeunet and a new interview with Jeunet and Caro—it’s so nice to see them together again, shame they will probably never make another film. The Blu-Ray disc seems to be the same as previous releases, and contains a few featurettes, a short interview with Jean-Paul Gaultier and various trailers.