In many ways, the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet/Marc Caro collaboration The City of Lost Children is barely a movie at all. It’s more an environment. Although things do happen in the picture, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a story is told, or that any real meaning is imparted. Instead, watching City of Lost Children is like flipping through an avant-garde children’s pop-up book, or playing one of those CD-ROM games where you explore a strange world, listen to pleasing music, and are occasionally surprised by circus freaks and psychopathic bugs. Exciting? Yes; invigorating, even. But it may not be entirely satisfying, unless stunning visuals alone are your liqueur of choice.
Nine-year-old actress Judith Vittet stars in City of Lost Children as Miette, the leader of a gang of orphans who patrol the streets of a fantastical French seaport city. The preteen mob picks pockets for two Siamese-twin gourmands and watches out for the fiendish monks known as The Cyclops, who advocate the plucking-out of eyes and finance their mystical technological explorations by selling children to a mad scientist named Krank (played by Daniel Emilfork). With the aid of five clones, a midget woman, and a brain in a jar, Krank hooks up the children he procures to giant tube-like machines that drain their heads of dreams.
This may sound like an excess of plot, but it’s actually not: It’s just back-story that we pick up as the film goes along. The actual narrative of The City of Lost Children is far less complicated. Essentially, what happens is that Miette, along with a helpful strongman named One (Ron Perlman), travels to the offshore rig that serves as Krank’s lair to free her caged peers. Working against her are the Siamese twins and their drunken ex-boss, a circus ringmaster. He dispatches an army of trained fleas, which inject a potion into human brains that turns gentle men into ruthless killers.
The City of Lost Children is undeniably interesting to watch in the most basic wayevery shot, every scene is visually dazzling and filled with the unexpected. If nothing else, the film should be commended for its unending parade of surreal cartoon-nightmare images, like the point-of-view shots of computer-animated fleas leaping through the streets and onto the scalps of their victims. No less astonishing are the elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque chains of consequence that keep Miette alive, or the piles of discarded treasure collected by a mysterious man who lives on the ocean floor.
Like Jeunet et Caro’s first film, the 1991 cult favorite Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children is less concerned with presenting a cohesive, intelligible story than it is with keeping the audience on its toes. The filmmakers’ goal is to unnerve, which they do by taking the playful icons of childhoodcircus performers, mechanical toys, storybook figures, even Santa Clausand blowing them up to obscene size, finding the creepy mania behind the painted smiles. Jeunet et Caro riff on all the Hansel and Gretel tales, where children are in danger from adults who want to exploit their innocence.
It is, however, just a riff, not a fully developed theme. Presented with all this delirious eye candy, the viewer has a couple of choices: He can sit back and enjoy the herky-jerky turns of Jeunet et Caro’s imagination, or he can struggle to stamp it all with some allegorical meaning, some point. I recommend the former path; down the latter lies madness. The filmmakers have not provided enough information to support any “reading” of their work, and to try to do so is to miss the movie’s simple, visceral thrills.
Would The City of Lost Children be a better film if it married its visual wit to a compelling, well rounded plot? Most definitely. As it is, there is little in the film that the audience can connect to emotionally, beyond the idea of lost children. The characters are unique, but virtually devoid of personality. They’re just part of the landscapeobjets d’art in Jeunet et Caro’s Museum of Human Oddities.
And yet, it’s hard to deny completely a movie that revels so much in pure, dark invention. Sometimes the cinema can be a mirror, reflecting our world in crisp, illuminating detail; other times it’s a window opening onto alien landscapes beyond conventional imagination. The City of Lost Children exists somewhere between these spheres of moviemaking: It’s a sort of one-way fun house mirror, with fascinating distorted images. Just don’t look too deeplylest you see right through.Noel Murray
Last weekend, at a music festival in Austin, I watched a singer in a tiny club give one of the most affecting, nakedly vulnerable performances I’ve ever seen. He stood on a stage the size of a pickup truck’s bed and sang of loves that didn’t work out and acquaintances who drank themselves near death, and when emotion seized him he swooned perilously close to the listeners before him, emptying his heart into his microphone just inches from their wide, transfixed faces. A moment later, a club staffer parted the crowd a few feet, and the singer disappeared wordlessly, maintaining the same distance from the audience even though he was no longer onstage. He didn’t speak to anyone else in the club all evening. As he left, I wondered what would lead someone to spill his soul before a hundred people at once, when he couldn’t even talk directly to a single person.
The answer, of course, is control, even though the threatthe promiseof losing control supposedly gives rock ’n’ roll its power. It’s a contradiction embodied in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Sadie Flood, a strung-out, booze-soaked singer drifting through a succession of crummy gigs. Sadie, a voracious, consumptive sprite, has passion, ambition and confrontational presence to spare. What she doesn’t have, cruelly enough, is pure talentthe kiss of God, her father calls it.
That kiss was bestowed upon her sister, a beloved folksinger whose shadow totally eclipses Sadie. Her sister is all poise, all tact and restraint, and Sadie’s sandpapery quaver is no match for her honeyed tones. The only thing Sadie can do that her sister can’t is lose controland so she does. But even that’s not enough. Even the movie, which is primarily Sadie’s story, bears her sister’s name.
Georgia, a riveting film written by Barbara Turner and directed by Ulu Grosbard, intercuts Sadie’s world of low-rent dives and revolving-door lovers with Georgia’s success and stability. But the two sisters aren’t polar opposites so much as divided halves of the same artistic sensibility. The drama comes from Sadie’s sudden intrusion into Georgia’s orderly life, a disruption that stirs barely concealed resentments on both sides.
As played by the perpetually underrated Mare Winningham, Georgia plays the superego to Sadie’s id. She’s swapped freedom for security, immersing herself offstage in the lives of her children and domestic tasks at her cozy, deliberately remote farmhouse. (It isn’t clear where her husband, played by Ted Levine with perfect celebrity’s-husband stolidity, fits into her schedule.) When Georgia sings, she gazes heavenward and radiates righteous concern; when Sadie sings, she’s as apt to howl orgiastically as she is to sink into a Robitussin-induced trance. There’s a great scene in which Sadie performs one of Georgia’s songs at a club date and invites Georgia onstage to help her sing it; as Sadie snarls through the chorus, Georgia suddenly hears the violence she won’t acknowledge in her own lyrics (“If I wanted to, I could kill you”). In its best scenes, Georgia forces us to consider the comparative merits of talent and passion, fame and anonymity, secrecy and self-baring; it asks us what we value in the musicians, and the music, that speak to us most.
The performances couldn’t be better or more daring. As an actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh always dances on the cliff’s edge, and when she falls (as in the elaborately misconceived The Hudsucker Proxy) she relies on empty, self-conscious mannerisms. When she pulls it off, though, she ventures into a void other actresses wouldn’t touch. Her Sadie, who rings her ferrety eyes with a bandit’s mask of eye shadow, is a creature of pure self-consuming appetite, and Leigh portrays her with such raw intensity that we, like Georgia, sometimes dread to see her coming.
As commanding as she is, though, she (appropriately) never obscures Mare Winningham’s Georgia, whose serene gravity keeps the movie from becoming a celebration of Sadie’s abandon. In many ways, Winningham walks even more of a tightrope than Leigh. She makes whole a character who must appear by turns aloof, nurturing, competitive and ethereal. The astute casting extends to the supporting cast, from John C. Reilly as a junkie drummer and John Doe as an aging rocker to Max Perlich as Sadie’s inexperienced would-be savior.
Grosbard, best known as a stage director, has achieved limited success with film: His best previous work was in the overlooked 1978 drama Straight Time, where he coaxed an atypically chilling performance from Dustin Hoffman as an unrepentant ex-con. His direction here is even better. He doesn’t hype the already intense drama with flashy cutting or cinematography: He favors long takes and static camera positions that let us study the actors’ faces and bodies. The effect is eerily intimate, like eavesdropping. And it’s especially welcome during the many musical numbers, which are filmed better than any I’ve seen since Stop Making Sense. When Sadie turns Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” into an onstage self-immolation, the camera freezes on her face, adjusting only slightly to catch Georgia’s appalled stare over her shoulder. We don’t need to see anything else. The director is plainly listening as well as watching.
A few details ring false, like the size of impoverished Sadie’s apartment, or the audience’s cool reception to her scarifying big number. Hell, she’s in Seattle, the city that enshrined tuneless caterwauling and naked self-expression. (If Courtney Love could make it there, Sadie’ll get elected mayor.) The rest, however, is unusually perceptive about the lives of people who will express themselves musically before hundreds of strangers, but won’t even speak their minds to their closest relatives. Georgia is the cinematic equivalent of an album too thorny and troubling to be denied. It may trouble you the one time you hear itbut it’ll come back to you when sunnier fare has faded.Jim Ridley
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