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City of Lost Children Offers a Feast of Surreal Treats for the Eyes

The City of Lost Children directed by Jeunet and Caro at the Coolidge Corner Theater and Kendall Square Cinema

By Dan Williams

You know that game "Mousetrap," where a little marble careens through some crazy maze, tripping switches that makes levers drop, catapults launch, springs sproing, weights fall, and a little plastic mouse get trapped under a plastic yellow cage? Well, that was a fun game, and Jeunet and Caro's The City of Lost Children is the French translation.

From the time the marble drops to the moment the cage falls, the audience is whisked through a fiendishly crafted visual space; past impossibly large buildings, into an underwater hideaway, around grotesque human caricatures, and into a surreal world that is both futuristic and strangely ancient. Shot entirely in the studio, the film sports some of the most incredible sets in recent memory. Often enhanced by computer imaging, the whole setting has an eerie pre-fabricated feel that is akin to today's high-tech electronic games. The influence of Terry Gilliam is apparent, since the style of visuals is reminiscent of the optical wackiness in Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Jeunet and Caro had, however, already carved out their own niche with their first film, Delicatessen, the story of cannibalism, troglodytes, circus performers, and, of course, love. But, with The City of Lost Children, they push their own style to the current technological limits. Indulging in kooky comic-book shenanigans that makes Dick Tracy look downright lifeless, the madcap directors pulled out all the stops to create a modern-tale fairy tale on a par with Pinocchio. In fact, the frenetic energy created by the movie what Disney should have been trying to create for years instead of slapping out syrupy sing-along goo like Pocahontas.

Following the actual story is almost secondary to the experience of following the movement, watching the cause-effect reactions on the screen, and just feasting on the rich atmosphere. Since the film is subtitled, there is, unfortunately, always the decision whether or not to read the dialogue and often, the subtitles can distract from the visuals. In fact, it is better to ignore the dialogue, and simply watch.

The story itself is not so complex. In a town by the sea, children are being abducted. The culprits are the diabolical Krank (a menacing Daniel Emilfork), his midget wife, his six identical brothers (all played by Dominique Pinon, the heroic clown of Delicatessen), and a pulsating brain named Irvin that floats in an aquarium. All are genetic experiments, and Krank has been aging prematurely because he is unable to dream. His solution is to set up an H.G. Wellesesque laboratory where he can try to extract the dreams of young children, unfortunately without success. Krank's henchmen are the fanatic Cyclops cult, an army of blind men, whose sight and hearing are enhanced by Krank's electronic inventions. A little boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien, who has the biggest eyes and oral fixation of any young actor in a surrealist movie in recent memory), is one of the children kidnapped, and his adopted older brother, One (Ron Perlman, showing that the giant chin he sported in The Name of the Rose was no mere makeup), a fun fair strongman, attempts to find him. He is helped by Miette (Judith Vittet), the leader of a ragtag group of orphans. Together with the help and hindrance of a legion of freaks, Miette and One attempt to rescue the little brother, defeat evil, and save the world.

As in Delicatessen, Jeunet and Caro are fascinated by the Rube Goldberg mechanics of their film, where coincidence is the norm and the unlikely is expected: Watch as the flight of one tear causes strange and dire consequences. See a flea's view of the streets, as it attempts to make the incredible journey home. Experience the incredible luck of an old explorer who wanders the sea floor. Many of the films of 1995 were rooted in the bleakness of humanity, and punctuated by drab exteriors. It's good to see that a great movie about genetic mutants can still come up with a colorful, carnival atmosphere.

Just plunk down your $7.50 at the beautiful art-nouveau Kendall Square Cinema and hang on for an artistic tour-de-force extravaganza; you'll buy the whole seat but you'll only need the edge. It's good old-fashioned eye candy, and your money won't be wasted. The movie may be pure escapism, but by the end, when the final marble falls into place, you'll be looking out from behind those plastic yellow bars.

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