2. City of Lost Children

One and Miette row to Krank's oil rig lair.

The City of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus) is a French surrealist/drama film from 1995, by directors Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. The film is set in a gloomy world during an ambiguous time period: it resembles a lower class area of industrial Victorian England in some ways, with its claustrophobic, maze-like streets, smog-obscured sky and characters living in various degrees of poverty, but in the spirit of steampunk, this world is also filled with bizarre technology and mechanical contraptions. The film revolves around the idea that the escapism of dreams is directly linked to youth and happiness, and that without dreams, the will to live in such a dark reality is hopelessly lost.

Krank and Denree.

The film’s villain, Krank, is one of these characters who has lost the will to live. Essentially an abandoned scientific experiment, Krank lives on an oil rig with his creator’s other failed attempts at producing life: Mademoiselle Bismuth, a disloyal dwarf who was supposed to be a beautiful princess, Uncle Irvin, a migraine-suffering brain in a fish tank, and six narcoleptic clones. Krank himself was intended to be his creator’s masterpiece, but he is flawed, too – though he is a genius he came into existence lacking the ability to dream, and this has made him so unhappy that it caused him to age at an accelerated pace. In an attempt to prolong his life, Krank hires a race of cyclops men to kidnap children for him and tries to steal their dreams, but still he ages. One of these children is Denree, the little brother of a simple-minded circus strongman named One, and the film’s plot follows his journey as he tries to save his brother with help from an orphan thief girl named Miette.

The cyclops.

This film functions as a steampunk work in a number of ways. Visually, it depicts many of the elements that are typical of the genre: the setting hearkens to lower-class Victorian England but blends the historical with anachronistic technology very seamlessly. Krank pays the cyclops, born blind, with mechanical monocles that give them sight, Uncle Irvin communicates from his fish tank via upcycled phonograph horns, and Krank conducts his sinister experiments in a converted oil platform at sea, to name a few examples.There is also a great deal of steampunk ‘tinkering’ in this film, though interestingly most of the small-scale tinkering involves the clever use of animals: Miette employs a mouse with a magnet attached to its tail to steal keys, the cyclops carry out executions via an ingeniously rigged system involving the luring of gulls to a weighted basket of fish, a guard dog is prevented from eating his master’s lunch by a pulley system attached to its collar…there is even a trained flea equipped with a poisoned proboscis, which is a darkly comic nod to both Victorian flea circuses and the prevalence of illness at the time.

Uncle Irvin.

Though the visuals are a very important part of why this film is ‘steampunk’, it functions as part of this genre on a deeper level as well, as it is ridden with social and ethical anxieties stemming from both present and Victorian technologies. The incredibly dark nature of the film itself is telling of its preoccupation with the more negative side of technology in general, but if one examines details from the film, specific anxieties can be unraveled. One of the biggest contemporary issues this film deals with is the problems associated with cloning technologies. Krank himself is a clone, as are his six “brothers”, Uncle Irvin and Mademoiselle Bismuth, and while all of them were brought into the world with innocent enough intentions – a lonely inventor simply longed for a wife, children, a companion and a creation to mark the pinnacle of his achievements- none of them turned out as they were supposed to. Besides their obvious physical defects, Uncle Irvin believes that they are all unnatural, soulless creatures, Krank being the biggest monster of them all (perhaps all of Irvin’s migraines come from the fact that he is the only one of the inventor’s creations who can grasp the ugly truth of their existence). At one point in the film Krank even argues that an inventor is responsible for the actions – and crimes – of his creations, not the creations themselves.

Miette and the guild of orphaned thieves.

One of the main Victorian issues explored in this film, as one might guess from the villain who preys on children and the child protagonist, is the oppressive cycle of child labour and poverty which became prevalent with the industrial revolution. Child labour was an issue before the Victorian period as well, but with the coming of the industrial revolution and the migration of many rural families to slums in the city, conditions for child labour became considerably more horrific. New technologies meant that many tasks now required less strength to perform, so children as young as four years old were forced to work in very dangerous and toxic environments for dismal wages. While this film does not delve into the horrors of child labour in mines and factories, the main action of the film revolves around a group of children who are, nonetheless oppressed by labour. Miette and many other orphaned children are forced to labour for their thieves guild for protection: they work for ‘The Octopus’, a pair of conjoined twins and former circus performers, who ensure their safety from the Cyclops kidnappers in exchange for stolen goods.

Mademoiselle Bismuth and the Cyclops.

Furthermore, the children who do not prove themselves useful to The Octopus are literally forced to provide work through technology – they are kidnapped by the Cyclops, traded to Mademoiselle Bismuth like so many slaves and end up in the hands of Krank, who straps them into cruel machines and will not even let them rest in their dreams. While this film does not engage in an analysis of all the possible issues which surround technology in the present and Victorian eras, as no film could ever tackle a task so large, ethical and social concerns are clearly its speciality. The live action film medium can more easily convey human emotion, and this film takes full advantage of this. Its characters all display various combinations and degrees of hopelessness, despair, and suffering, exemplifying the possible consequences of technological advancement upon the very minds and souls human beings.

 

Some video useful clips:

Krank insists that being a man-made monster means that his creator, not he himself, is guilty of his crimes:

 

An excellent fan-made trailer which provides a good synopsis of the film:

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