The City of Lost Children has the darkly narcotic beauty of a dream that's melting into nightmare, and like most dreams it doesn't make much sense. The filmmakers, artistic director Marc Caro and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (they also made Delicatessen, in 1991), rely mainly on visual rather than narrative bridges to connect the movie's scenes — a teardrop, for instance, flying from a little girl's face into an eccentric's faraway lair, where its impact in a spider's web sets off a Rube Goldberg sequence of events that moves the action along. Just as in a dream, characters become other characters, changing sexes and ages and locales seamlessly. From moment to moment everything seems to make sense, but the overall effect is one of head-spinning dislocation.
The visual bridging is a daring technique that, while often hypnotic, is never truly satisfying. But it's better than nothing, because the story itself is dangerously dim, a Spielbergian tale of brave, resourceful children struggling to survive in a world beset by every sort of adult evil. The film's dialogue is both elliptical and simple-minded, and there are no real characters or relationships — just live-action cartoon figures moving through the gorgeously imagined sets that are the movie's true stars.
The city itself has no name, but it's always night there. The harbor's waters are menacingly green, and the dark buildings have that soaring, inhuman quality Tim Burton gave to Gotham City in his Batman movies. The city combines Victoriana, art deco, and ultramodern designs in an unself-conscious jumble that's entirely persuasive. There are old Victrolas playing 78 rpm records; wild brain-scanning devices like something out of Frankenstein; and futuristic monocles that give a race of blind villains (the Cyclops) a kind of TV-screen vision.
The relentless dark constantly rustles with the movement of evil figures, chief among them Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a spectral madman with an utterly bald skull and the protruding teeth of a cadaver. He lives in the harbor, on a structure that's like a cross between an oil derrick and Castle Dracula. There, in his laboratory, he works on methods to steal dreams from children — the only hope he has of relieving his own misery and reversing his premature aging.
One of the more arresting features of Krank's laboratory is Irvin, a disembodied but vigorously contrarian brain who lives in a well-aerated fish tank and converses through a 19th-century phonograph speaker. Irvin is but one of the many debts City owes to the original Star Trek TV series. (In “Spock's Brain,” the Vulcan's cerebellum was installed not in an aquarium but in what looked like a frosted crystal ball.)
Krank's brain-scanning gizmos, with their fantastically elaborate cones and coils, are also very Trekky (Jules Verne, too). Krank himself is, physically and morally, an archetype; he looks like a vampire, and despite his diabolical schemes he's essentially lonely and pathetic, like all movie villains.
The children he seeks — by dispatching squads of Cyclops into the city to kidnap them — resemble the urchins of Dickens' novels, except that they've retained an ethereal beauty. They live in an orphanage run by cruel sisters who are also Siamese twins and who shriek with nasty laughter like Patty and Selma, Homer's cigarette-puffing sisters-in-law on The Simpsons. Their fiery end is self-induced but altogether deserved.
The children's leader is Miette (Judith Vittet), a beautiful, fearless girl who joins forces with One (Ron Perlman), an idiotic but good-hearted muscleman. Together they search the city for One's “petit frere,” Denree (Joseph Lucien), a wide-eyed cherub who only eats and burps. The Cyclops snatch Denree as the film opens, sending One into a jag of inchoate moaning.
There are so many bad guys flying around that it's impossible to keep track of who's in cahoots with whom. One peculiar man, The Diver (Dominique Pinon), looks like Popeye the Sailor Man and lives at the bottom of the harbor. Pinon, without the beard, also plays The Clones, a set of six quarrelsome look-alikes in Krank's thrall. Their antics provide — barely — some comic relief.
The City of Lost Children sustains a mood of well-decorated melancholy, but the endless visual fantastications and the absence of true characters rob it of the power to evoke real feeling, whether terror or joy. Watching it is like walking through a Gothic fun house: Around the next corner might lurk a lunatic genius or a marauding cradle robber or a gilded cockroach trained to mischief. But the movie overreaches in asking for the suspension of adult disbelief. It's impossible to forget for one moment that this is a movie — being shown in a theater, with the exit doors clearly marked.
The film turns on the unremarkable proposition that children have a greater capacity to imagine than adults, but even if small children might accept City's spell more easily, it's not a movie for them. Although the filmmakers are scrupulous about keeping incidents of violence and horror off-screen, they're still pretty clearly implied.
And there's no good news. The sun never shines, birds never sing, no one ever smiles. There's nothing and no one to feel sympathy for. It doesn't matter who wins, because no one can, really. The movie lacks an ideal, a hero. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; there isn't even a rainbow, just storm clouds.
Miette, while virtuous, is no heroine. Judith Vittet has a grave loveliness, but her character is as hard as nails — a tough, purposeful adult in a child's body. Perlman is a lunkhead with a sloping forehead and sunken, suspicious eyes; he's like a caveman accidentally let loose in a dank urban world of intricate fiendishness he can't understand. In one scene they sleep together in the same bed, but their conversation is perfectly disjointed — not a conversation at all, but a set of skewed monologues, each broadcasting hurt on a frequency the other can't tune in — and they don't even look at one another.
It's just as well. If they did, they'd see that there isn't much there.
The City of Lost Children opens Fri, Dec. 22, at the Embarcadero Center in