Second Time Around

The City of Lost Children
On its release at Christmas 1995, The City of Lost Children was compared with the fantasies of Terry Gilliam, sharing as it does an interest in retro technology and also in the value and function of dreams. Stepping back a bit, this amazing film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro can be seen as a leading light in what amounts to an ongoing worldwide Golden Age of fantastic cinema, this and the team's Delicatessen (1991) taking a high place alongside the best work of Gilliam, Tsui Hark, Henry Selick, Jan Svankmajer, Katsuhiro Otomo, and the brothers Quay, as well as some of that of David Lynch and Tim Burton. Obviously these films and filmmakers are very different, and of course sometimes, for whatever reason, they fail spectacularly (Mars Attacks!). But at their best they share an interest in utilizing the naturalistic medium of film to convey intensely unreal events, liberating their audiences' imaginations en route. Like all good filmmakers in this genre, moreover, Jeunet and Caro are not overawed by the state-of-the-art technology they employ, including some creative computer work that allows the rubber-faced Dominique Pinon to play six clones on screen at once. And they navigate the tricky shoals of a complex story in an insanely detailed setting with aplomb.

An interesting essay in the current New Left Review repackages an old left complaint about filmic fantasy, its inherent "conservatism" as it "reduces" the audience to a childlike status. While this complaint has merit regarding many Hollywoodized fantasies (the entire oeuvre of Messrs. Lucas and Spielberg, as well as most horror films), a consideration of the best works of the above-named filmmakers says it isn't so. Childhood has many social disadvantages, like powerlessness, but its strengths include a freer access to liberating imagination than most adults possess. The City of Lost Children, in which an evil old man kidnaps youngsters to steal their dreamlife through technology, is a blunt statement of this point. The tots' liberators here are kids themselves: a lonely orphan girl and a childlike strongman. The film even ends in incendiary revolution; Tupac Amaru should do so well.

In retrospect it's quite fascinating just how many outstanding films of the fantastic deal with children's fantasy lives as their means of resisting adult tyranny: The Wizard of Oz is one well-known instance. The City of Lost Children is truly a modern classic that will repay many viewings. The only disturbing "flea with the ointment" in this picture is the news that Jeunet, sans Caro, has heeded the siren song of Hollywood and is set to direct Alien 4. Let's see him make something incendiary out of that!

-- Gregg Rickman

The City of Lost Children screens Friday through Monday, Jan. 10-13, at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. (with additional shows Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 11-12, at 2 and 4:15 p.m.) at the Red Vic, Haight & Clayton. Tickets are $6; call 668-3994. It also plays Fridays at midnight at the UC Theater, Shattuck & University in Berkeley. Tickets are $6.50; call (510) 843-6267.

 
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