Monday, March 20, 2017

DYSTOPIAN VISIONS: City of Lost Children

Dossier: City of Lost Children

Filetype: Film

File Under: Stateless Dystopia

Executive Summary: One, a circus strongman in a surrealistic nightmare world that is equal parts Salvador Dali, Tom Waits spoken-word pieces, and Charles Dickens, via Fritz Lang's Metropolis, sees his little brother Donree abducted from a crowd and begins a single-minded hunt for him. One is aware, certainly, of the criminal element that runs through this society like capillaries, and of the roving bands of cyborg cultists that seem to be part police force and part kidnapping ring, but One is completely unaware of something far stranger at play...the scientist Krank.

Located on a secret, aquatic fortress, Krank and his brothers and sister are all created beings, the products of The Original. But they are all somehow broken. Martha is a dwarf; Uncle Irvin is a brain without a body, and plagued by migraines; the clone henchmen all have narcolepsy; and Krank cannot dream. Krank has been supplying the cultists with the cybernetic apparatuses they drive into their eyes and ears to better comprehend the true nature of reality. In exchange, the cultists have been stealing children for Krank's experiments. He believes that by inducing dreams in these stolen children, he will unlock the secret and gain the ability to dream for himself.

One meets a young girl named Miette, an orphan who has been forced into a life of crime by The Octopus, conjoined twins who control the lives of a large group of orphans and force them to commit both petty and elaborate robberies. After One helps Miette and her peers steal a safe, the two become unlikely partners and continue the search for Donree, braving the cyborg cult, The Octopus, tics trained to deliver murderous poison at the bidding of an organ grinder, and more as they move closer to a confrontation with Krank.

Dystopian Visions: Equal parts surrealism and dystopia, City of Lost Children draws upon the horrors of a Dickensian world of an invisible underclass with no hope for ever moving out of their station beneath this society (but is there even an upperclass in this world?), and fuses that with elements of both technological and fundamentalist dystopia. The lives of Miette and her fellow orphans are rarely presented as in strictly mortal peril, but their existence is bleak, and the idea of "childhood" is completely alien. The cyborgs, known as The Cyclops, are seen in their cultish meetings in a scene that is evocative of those in Metropolis where the robot Maria whips the underground workers into a rebellious frenzy with fire-and-brimstone religious fervor. 

This world is essentially one of lawlessness, where reason is not to be relied on, and destructive forces of many different stripes imperil everyone, forcing them into terrible choices that ultimately prove impossible to live with. We see converts give up their eye and ear in terror as they join The Cyclops. We see lackeys and con men forced into crimes they would never otherwise entertain. We see Krank's family suffer with their own monstrous actions, never certain if the scales can be balanced between their own pain they are trying to mitigate, and the pain in so many others they cause.

Utopian Undercurrents: In the legend of The Original, we see the glimmer of a utopian ideal in a man who attempted to use science to create beauty, intelligence, and a gateway to deeper understanding. But whether through that one man's personal limitations, or the hubris of any man attempting to create such things, the end result wound up being a horrible distortion that actually brought more pain and confusion into the world.

Level of Hell: Third. The world here is grim, for certain, but throughout it, we see that the human capacity for love and connection remains strong. It has not been eradicated, nor has it been actively subverted, as we see in many statist dystopias. One has deep connections with Donree and Miette, there are strong connections between many of the orphans, and even Martha is fiercely protective of Krank and the other creations. Love does not conquer all, but love always puts up a fight.

Legacy: If you enjoy Amelie, you can thank this earlier Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. The subsequent films Dark City and The Matrix also drew heavily from the same palette this film established.

In Retrospect: This movie is so good. The cleverness, the humor, the performances, including the otherworldly, old-soul performance of Judith Vittet as Miette and Ron Perlman speaking in French as One are astounding. As a work of visual imagination, this film has few peers. It is a masterpiece.


For its time: 5/5
Watched today: 5/5.
Oppressometer Readout: 10/10.