Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Common Theme

At the beginning of the DVD commentary for The City of Lost Children, Jean-Pierre Jeunet comes right out and says "This opening scene is perhaps a little confusing," and Ron "Hellboy" Perlman, who plays a major role in the film, chimes in with: "You think? And the middle and the end, too!"

It is confusing, but that's one of the things I like about the picture. The City of Lost Children forces the audience to pay attention and become an active participant in the story. Everything makes perfect sense in the end, but Jeunet and his then-collaborator Marc Caro don't spell much out: the audience must make some connections on its own.

In a separate interview, Jeunet expresses dissatisfaction with the film. "It has not enough story," he says, and reveals that the design and visuals were created first, forcing them to come up with a story to match. The only place where this is really evident is in the element of the oddball fanatic group known as The Cyclops: that the real villains of the piece are using them to kidnap street children barely justifies the amount of screen time spent on them. 

Perlman plays a type common to nearly all of Jeunet's movies: all grown up on the outside, but still a child on the inside. Even when he adopts two street urchins, he refers to them as "Little Brother" and "Little Sister." The Strong Man in a street fair, Perlman's character One is drawn into the story when his "Little Brother" is kidnapped by the Cyclops, literally ripped from his arms, and sold to a vile old man who lives on an oil rig and tries to regain his rapidly waning youth by stealing the dreams of the kidnapped children. 

As a two-person rescue team, One and his newfound "Little Sister" Miette (charmingly played by the young Judith Vittet) almost make a complete person: He provides the brawn and she provides the brains. 

Visually, it's pure Steampunk, although I'm not certain that word had been coined yet in 1995. But its theme is all Peter Pan, although Jeunet seems to be giving the opposite moral:  childhood should be clung to and coveted, because once it's gone you can't get it back, even by injecting yourself into a child's dreams. One remains marvelously pure and untarnished by the movie's end, while Miette defeats the villain by making the impossible journey.

Marc Caro was the designer and co-director. That the collaboration between Jeunet and Caro effectively ended here (Caro started out as co-director on Alien: Ressurection, then dropped out) is probably the best thing that could have happened to Jeunet. City of Lost Children is a wonderful movie of its type, but if he had continued to work with Caro, Jeunet could never have grown as director, and would never have given us his masterpieces, Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. Both films have the visual style and playfulness that's already present in City of Lost Children, but both also have the added elements of Romance, and Juenet's careful layering of plot and event.


I did not expect to be so strongly affected by D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation that I had to switch it off shortly into its runtime.  But then, neither had I expected the picture to be so myopically non-objective, so fawningly supportive of the Confederacy and all that it stood for.

The opening scenes depict a glowing, rosy dream of the Southern Aristocracy, a staunch declaration that it was a Better World, balanced in perfect harmony, the belles and the Southern gents swirling about in a glow of opulence and happiness while the merry Darkies danced their joyous Coon Dances, because they were so happy, so very honored and privileged, to be the chained and whipped and raped slaves of such Delightful People. Why, they even came out into the streets and cheered when the Gay Boys rode off to war, waving their hats and rattling their sabers, to defend the Nigger Right to being Enslaved.

Well, Mr. Griffith. Of course those were Halcyon Days. Your people drifted like junkies in a dream world of Privilege and wisteria -- that they built on the backs of an enslaved people. 

I'll never watch another Griffith picture again. It's one of those terrible contradictions of life that the man who so revolutionized an industry that changed the way the world lived and the way people think about themselves turns out to be a deluded, chest-thumping bigot at heart.

-- Freder.

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