Retro-Review: City of Lost Children (1995)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a screening of The City of Lost Children, a gem of French cinema from the 1990s which I have long adored. I love it for its baroque production design, the casting of fabulously unusual faces and an overall cartoonish sensibility that makes it a dark fairy tale adventure full of surprises and laughs.

I’ve seen the film several times but it is only now that I feel I comfortably have a grasp of the plot, because it is serpentine with endless detours into side-gags. Broadly speaking, in the fable-like setting of some dark quasi-early-20th century sea port town, children are being abducted by a mad scientist living in an off-shore laboratory where he drains them of their dreams in order to stay young. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but our central protagonist, One (Ron Perlman), is a fairground strongman whose little brother is stolen, triggering a quest to find him, aided by 10 year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a street-urchin and sort-of leader of a gang of child street thieves.

There are a lot of subplots running parallel to one another throughout the film’s running time, so much so that I can’t really explain any more of the plot because it would take too long and it’s more fun to discover for yourself. The show moves along at a good clip and never really lags, with loads of detail in every frame. The filmmaking team at the helm, Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, would later go on to make Amelie¬†(2001) which is a great example of their flair for fantastical elements and buoyant humour, though City of Lost Children is much darker in tone. Along with Delicatessen¬†(1991), the duo have made three fine films which made me fall in love with French cinema.

I also want to make special mention of the casting of this movie. It is full of the most interesting looking people you’ve ever seen in a single film. The only pretty people are the children, almost as if to suggest that we all start out pretty until life twists us into broken adults. I also love how Miette plays as the classic fatalistic French femme, cynical and world-weary, yet tagging along with the vaguely simian strongman, One, focused on his quest. They make an endearing pairing of brains and brawn.

I love The City of Lost Children. I think the way its whimsy plays off the darker undertones is delightful. Wonderful cast, a pleasantly convoluted plot, gorgeous production design and flashes of humour make it a joy to watch. Thanks to this and the other works of Jeunet & Caro, I am a confessed fan of French film. Great fun.

Retro-Review: Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is a master of spectacle. This World War II-era film is a deserved classic of cinema with great characters in epic locales. It’s a treat to the eyes and ears and, even though it might be a little slow and old-fashioned, it’s still one of the all-time great films.

The story, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, is about the Japanese army using prisoners of war to build the Burma-Siam railway and the Allied efforts to sabotage it. It opens in the camp run by the stern disciplinarian Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) where a ragtag assortment of POWs (including William Holden as Shears) are laconically carrying out the orders to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai under hellish conditions. One day, a huge number of British army soldiers and officers led by quintessentially stiff-upper-lip Colonel Nicholson (the splendid Alec Guinness in Oscar-winning form) march into camp as the newest prisoners. After a clash of pride between Nicholson and Saito a strange, grudging respect forms and soon Nicholson, out of an excess of pride, has his officers and troops helping to build the bridge, but a better bridge built to British engineering standards. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and reaches safety but is soon recruited into a British mission to sabotage the bridge, based on his first-hand knowledge of the area.

The movie was a huge winner at the Oscars, winning seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including best picture, and it’s not hard to see why. The film is really spectacular with huge set pieces involving hundreds of extras in really exotic locations. Today these things could be done easily with CGI, but in 1957 everything you saw on screen had to photographed and that fact makes the images all the more astounding. Anchoring the story, however, are great performances by Hayakawa and Guinness as men of immense pride and pragmatism, who might have been friends in another time and place but are forced by circumstance to be adversaries. It’s a very interesting balance and Alec Guinness is truly magnetic as the perfect army officer whose optimistic belief in civilization, especially in its British form, is absolute. I loved him from start to finish.

The movie does have some drawbacks, in my opinion. For one, it is very long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and it is slow-paced, so you kind of feel every minute of the running time. As impressed as I was by the Guinness/Hayakawa plotline, I found the William Holden plotline somewhat less engaging. I like Holden, but he’s a bit of-his-time in his acting style, in my opinion. The film has a very old-fashioned feel in some of its performances and slightly stagey action, but it’s not an action movie so I can let it go. It also has the ring of unaware racism appropriate to its era in the way the British officers haughtily dismiss the engineering attempts of the Japanese, but it’s hard to be sure there isn’t some intentional ring of irony. I mean, Nicholson is almost over the top in his Britishness while still being charismatic and endearing. I think the filmmakers were sophisticated enough to be poking gentle fun at the attitude of people who were, after all, a generation before themselves while recognizing there is something to be said for uprightness and propriety.

I really liked Bridge on the River Kwai for a lot of reasons, Alec Guinness being far and away the first. I also thought it was absolutely beautiful to look at and the plot was interesting enough that I enjoyed the film’s leisurely pace. The suspense of setting up the charges to blow the bridge and the ensuing risk of discovery worked very well, in my opinion, and the explosion (spoiler alert!) is quite a feat of pyrotechnics for 1957 which stands as strong as most things done today. I thought the film had an interesting philosophy about pragmatism and pride which came out in the good writing and great performances. All-in-all, I think¬†Bridge on the River Kwai is a great example of big-scale classic filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.