Pic’s high must-see factor in its native Gaul should ensure brisk B.O. locally, but reviews and nifty marketing outside Europe will de-termine whether the subtitled pic can reach broader audiences than the arthouse crowd who grooved on “Delicatessen” back in 1991. Its reception in competition at Cannes, where it opens the fest today (at the same time as bowing in France), could be crucial to wider overseas chances.
Though the movie is clearly the work of the same team, and shares much of the grungy, saturnine look and humor of “Delicatessen,” Jeunet and Caro are after bigger game this time out.
Entirely created in a studio, and set in a world plunged into endless twilight-cum-night, the film posits a kind of neo-Victorian, industrial society where David Lynch would feel at home. Though “Delicatessen” was seemingly set in the wrong part of town in the early ’50s, “City” is more like a Looney Tunes fantasy sprung from the head of Jules Verne.
Setting is a multilevel smokestack port littered with industrial detritus, rusty tankers and the biggest collection of weirdos and humans since Tod Browning’s “Freaks.” Local heavies are the Cyclops, a Nietzschean sect of one-eyed fanatics who abduct young kids for crazed inventor Krank (Daniel Emilfork), an aging wizen who lives on a castle-like oil rig beyond a giant minefield.
The joyless Krank needs the children to steal their dreams. His only other companions are six identical court-jester clones (Dominique Pinon), their dwarf “mother” Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse) and a talking brain in a fish tank (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant).
The Cyclops’ latest kidnap victim is Denree (Joseph Lucien), adopted baby brother of One (Ron Perlman), aformer whale harpooner of uncertain ethnic origin who moons around the port. One teams up with a group of orphan thieves controlled by Siamese twin sisters the Octopus (Genevieve Brunet, Odile Maillet) , and later bonds with the sassiest of the tykes, 9-year-old Miette (Judith Vittet).
After escaping death first at the hands of the Cyclops, and then from the Octopus’ former freakshow employer, Marcello (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), One and Miette set out in a rowboat to rescue Denree from Krank’s lofty lab-on-a-rig.
For what is basically an exercise in sustained texture and cartoon-based imagery, Jeunet and Caro (the first again credited with “direction” and the second with “artistic direction”) weave a strong enough storyline to sustain the weight of the huge cast of characters, criss-crossing and bumping into each other like balls on a pool table. Though One and Miette finally set out on their quest after 90 minutes, helmers maintain a dramatic balance by cross-cutting between Krank’s super-lab and the harbor town in almost equal measure.
But with each frame filled to bursting point with visual detail and multiplaned design, plus razor-sharp cutting that often eliminates transitions, it’s not a movie you can afford to take your eyes off for a second. In addition, the major set-pieces are so breathtaking that it’s sometimes hard to remember afterwards where the characters were last positioned in the plot.
Effects work, all done in France, is seamless, to the extent that some (such as the clones, all played by Pinon) effectively lose the awesomeness of being an effect. On a purely emotional level, it’s notable that the film’s most engaging moments are those when the filmers turned off the computers and simply came up with entrancing ideas.
In the large ensemble cast, young Vittet is standout as the tough, streetwise Miette. Perlman, as the lantern-jawed lug One, is a fine physical foil, though not called upon to extend his acting range. Pinon sometimes overstays his welcome as the jester clone; other roles are excellently cast, especially Brunet and Maillet as the evil Siamese twins.
Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costumes run the gamut from kids’ street clothes to Victorian lab wear. Composer Angelo Badalamenti contribs broad, evocative scoring that hints at the simple, fairy tale elements beneath the pic’s elaborate exterior.