Jean-Pierre Jeunet is a director whom I, to put it mildly, love. His movies are imbued with magic realism, a style that reminds us of life but also transcends it with beautiful stylizations. Most importantly, though, his stories are incredibly human, filled with beautifully nuanced touches that, for all the style, remind us that the ideas are always about people. Amélie is perhaps his most popular film, and it’s absolutely delightful, but two of his most intriguing movies are also his earliest: Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, which he co-directed with Marc Caro. Unlike his later, mostly-realist films, these two are sci-fi/fantasy dystopian pieces in the vein of Terry Gilliam, and they are absolutely fascinating. I’ve decided to write an article on them because I think they’re worth consideration and deserving of an audience beyond their cult status. What better way to do so than with a nice Double Feature article?
Plot: In some kind of desolate, dystopian landscape, people are starving and living in poor conditions. The Butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who controls an apartment complex, keeps his residents fed by bringing in poor workers, killing them, and selling the meat. Cue the arrival of a new resident, Louison (Dominique Pinon), whose offbeat and child-like senses of fun and wonder contrast the dreary depression that has seeped over the building. The Butcher’s daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), slowly begins to fall for Louison, and attempts to tell him the danger that looms over not only him, but everyone in the building.
As dark as that synopsis sounds, Delicatessen is actually far from overly grim and bleak. In fact, two words that come to my mind before those are “touching” and “funny.” Jeunet certainly captures the raw brutality of this world, but he also spends most of his time focusing on the distinctly human qualities of it. A lot of storytellers dealing in dystopia settle for simply showing a constructed world, but Jeunet knows that stories really hit a peak in terms of intrigue when there is change and development. Louison brings out those qualities, thanks to both the brilliant writing/direction and Dominique Pinon’s absolutely fantastic performance. Pinon, in many ways, has caricature-like qualities, but Jeunet uses those to bring out the humanity of Louison. In reality, everyone is a kind of caricature once you really know them, with exaggerations and distinct qualities; Jeunet simply brings those to the forefront immediately, making people that are amplified but all the more human and realistic for it.
The changes associated with Louison’s arrival are all examples of beautiful, artistic touches. There’s a huge focus on the art of the everyday, which Louison is able to find in the simplest of objects. He plays a musical saw and entertains kids (not to mention the audience) with soap bubbles. Moreover, the apartment complex has a rhythmic quality, with several brilliant scenes that find a consistent beat in something like bouncing bed springs, and turns that into a soundtrack around which the actions of the entire building are centered. These moments allow us to understand characters and relationships immediately without any dialogue, avoiding expository clichés that plague poorer dystopian stories.
With all the exaggerations and other effects associated with magic realism, Jeunet creates something that has a lot of humor and beauty despite—or maybe due to—the subject matter, because he chooses to focus on the human beings within the story. Most importantly, though, he recognizes that everyone is human. The residents knowingly partake in a terrible system, but Jeunet emphasizes that these people are trapped in terrible circumstances. More importantly, Jeunet takes the time to explore each of their stories and eccentricities, making what might otherwise be stock characters like the Butcher’s Mistress into human beings like Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard). Louison’s ability to break out of that mindset is seen as a wonderful thing, but that does not mean everyone else is ugly. Instead, the contrast reveals how Louison’s ability empathize and find beauty in the everyday is great in any society, and thus Jeunet pushes forward a humanistic mindset without judging or condemning. In many ways, Jeunet creates a film of contradictions and subverted expectations, and the result is a truly unique piece of science fiction that only improves upon subsequent viewings.
The City of Lost Children [Original: La Cité des Enfants Perdus] (1995)
Plot: In a dystopian city ravaged by poverty and unsanitary living conditions, One (Ron Perlman) lives with his little brother until a group of cult-like men called Cyclopses kidnap the young boy. One works with a group of orphans, in particular a young girl named Miette (Judith Vittet), in order to reclaim his little brother from the hands of Krank (Daniel Emilfork), a bizarre evil scientist who cannot dream. Krank lives with six clones (ALL DOMINIQUE PINON!) that he calls brothers, a little person who acts as the mother (Mireille Mossé), and a brain in a tank, Uncle Irvin. Krank cannot dream, which sets in motion the events that cause him to kidnap children from the city.
City of Lost Children is intriguing for some of the apparent contradictions within it, much like with Delicatessen. Upon first viewing, it seems endlessly complicated, namely the relationships between characters and locations (is Krank the clones’ brother? Father? Creator?). However, upon further viewings, it becomes clear how simple everything is once those small details are grasped; I had the good fortune of discussing this movie in a class recently, and someone (I believe it was Second Breakfast writer, Chris Melville) likened the plot to a story weaved by a child with its endless complications. Much like a child’s story, though, it’s also filled with creativity and ingenuity.
City of Lost Children is, in many ways, a movie about childhood filtered through a childlike perspective. One (two?) of the antagonists is named “The Octopus” (Geneviève Brunet & Odile Mallet) and as someone else in that class pointed out (bunch of really smart people, I tell ya), she/they are right out of a kid’s nightmare. “The Octopus” is two women who are like siamese twins with a psychic connection, and their beautifully choreographed movements can give even full-grown adults the heebie-jeebies. One of the two protagonists, One, is like a child in a (huge) grown man’s body, which contrasts Miette, a young orphan with the mentality of an adult. The horror of the city that surrounds them reveals the extent to which adults are rendered into children and children are forced into adulthood, holding up an unpleasant mirror to our own society.
Jeunet doesn’t settle for merely criticizing society, though. He also takes great care to explore the beauty of small moments and exploration, as opposed to pure rationality. In one scene, to get a key that is in the keyhole on the other side of a locked door, they push the key out, grate some cheese, shoot it under the door around the key, let in a mouse with a magnet attached to it, wait for the magnet to catch the key, and then drop down a cat in another part of the room to make the mouse run back through the hole and back to them. It’s convoluted as all hell, but also creative, brilliant, and fun. It’s the art of action, and Jeunet spends most of his time celebrating that, with the social critique precipitating naturally.
There is also a lot more going on thematically in this movie, perhaps so much so as to be a flaw. There are questions of the need to be original (the clones desperately hope they are the “original”—not the original human they were based upon, but the first clone upon which the other clones are based); the relationship between stories, fairy tales, and religion; the randomness of events that define our actions; the role of dreams; the growth of our creations into autonomous beings; and a hell of a lot more. City of Lost Children really benefits from repeated viewings as a result, as all the ideas floating around can overwhelm.
But even forgetting the story, the visuals are truly in the top of their class. The city is massive and dreary, yet colorful, like a creepy carnival. The style is steampunk before that term really took off, if I’m not mistaken; but beyond the set design, each shot is packed with small details and clever construction. Jeunet and Caro really know their way behind a camera, as does cinematographer Darius Khondji. The result is a visual feast that can distract from the intricacy of the ideas and story, but really benefits them in creating a holistically imaginative movie.
Delicatessen and City of Lost Children are two pieces of brilliant, fully-realized creation that will please many sci-fi/fantasy fans, and truly delight anyone with a penchant for directors with a touch of clever whimsy. If you’re looking for something delightful, intelligent, and beautiful to watch, I highly recommend both of these movies; you’ll only grow to love them more upon subsequent viewings.