Thoughts On: The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain


The City Of Lost Children - Creation In Vain

Thoughts On: The City Of Lost Children (La Cité des Enfants Perdus, 1995)

A strong-man circus performer's adopted brother is stolen by an organisation who give children to an evil scientist that steals their dreams.

The City Of Lost Children is a film we recently, and briefly, covered without spoilers. To see this, click here. Today we will be exploring the narrative of The City Of Lost Children with spoilers, so, if you've not seen it, you've been warned.

Jeunet and Caro's 1995 film is a fairy that is essentially about vanity and its effects on children. The vanity that is referenced in this narrative isn't, however, a narcissistic obsession with one's own image. Instead, an indulgence in one's own existential and material being. Picking up on this, but not focusing on it, some theorists have seen The City Of Lost Children as a critique and exploration of capitalism; both its positive and negative sides. Whilst I see this as a layer and a valid interpretation of this narrative, I think the heart of The City Of Lost Children is certainly the theme of family, or rather, a lack of positive familial groups. And in focusing on this element of the narrative, it becomes increasingly evident that father figures in particular are being assessed and critiqued throughout this story.

There are two primary father figures in The City Of Lost Children: One and The Scientist. Whilst One is a compassionate father, The Scientist is a vain one. We come to understand this through the fact that One is one of the clear sacrificial heroes of this narrative (alongside Miette) whilst The Scientist is the figure that has sparked the sinister network that sprawls across the nearby city. This web of selfish malevolence was then ignited by The Scientist's four life-creating experiments. First was a beautiful princess, who he constructed to be his wife. Something went wrong with the genetic building of Martha, however, and she emerged from the experiment disfigured - a dwarf. Next, The Scientist cloned himself, creating his identical sons - but they too weren't perfect; they all fall asleep without a moment's notice. After this, The Scientist wanted someone to talk to and so he created a brain in a jar. He strikes out again though; the brain constantly suffers from migraines. Focusing on his masterpiece, not so much his shortcomings, he finally creates a scientist more brilliant than himself, Krank, who cannot dream and so ages unnaturally, then eventually becomes corrupted and evil. After destroying his father, The Scientist, with his mother (or at least, this is what they aimed to do), Krank then attempts to steal his youth back by extracting the dreams from innocent children in the nearby city.

What this summary would begin to imply is an archetypal story of a 'perfect' creation being corrupted - something that is seen in differing lights within narratives such as Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Terminator and Tron. These narratives seem so archetypal as human beings understand that, with science, we have great potential and limitless power, but simultaneously recognise that some people can't even keep a simple house plant alive for more than a month. So, should people, all of us in general, who can prove themselves to be so naive and incapable be granted such power? This is the question that many of these narratives begin asking, but, the most complex actually bypass this kind of questioning as, upon consideration, it is actually a terrible thing to ask. This is because the question proposes a problem with one of two polar options that prove to solve nothing. The dialogue surrounding such a question would then be:

Should we be granted such power?
Well, let us continue on our current path just as we are.


Should be be granted such power?
Well, let us sit here and never change and just rot.

Simple answers provide simple solutions; if the answer is too simple, the solution will fail. Understanding this, better writers will not ask these questions, instead, they will ask something along the lines of: how do we change so that we align ourselves on the path towards being able to handle such power, such as the A.I in Terminator or Tron, or the biological and chemical advances in films such as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man? This is, self-evidently, a far more useful question and one that is asked just as such, or with an opposing inflection: what will happen if we don't change and still take this power? And such is the common approach seen in films such as Terminator. The City Of Lost Children explores both sides of this coin, asking what happens if people do not change as well as depicting a manner in which people can change.

We then come back to the father figure dichotomy drawn up between The Scientist and One. Whilst One shows no real self-obsession at any point in this narrative, only a dedication to his 'little brother and sister', The Scientist is implied to have fallen in love with his own potential and, instead of using his life-creating abilities to aid other people, he served himself. One thing I find interesting about how he is depicted to have made the wrong decision here is the implication of genetics. Just like nature seemingly has controls in place so that we cannot successfully reproduce ourselves or with family, there seems to be a wall put in place when The Scientist attempts to clone himself and, using unknown material, create Martha his wife, Ivan the brain and Krank. And there is an appeal to a natural order throughout this movie; most clearly, through the theme of coincidence. Jeunet playfully uses this in many of his films, often as a romantic means of implying fate or a way things were supposed to be. This is true of The City of Lost Children. There are many ludicrous plot-points throughout this narrative that are emphasised to be seen precisely as such, and the clearest examples of this would be the scene in which Miette is saved from drowning by The Scientist, the sequence in which the twins attempt to assassinate One and Miette as well as the very end with the bird perching on the detonator. Whilst these are playful means of building a unique story, they also serve the purpose of implying a natural or guided fate that exists in the this story's world - which has heavy links to the existential themes of this narrative. In such, what is revealed both through elements like the coincidental opening and the many beats of this narrative that are manufactured to bring it towards a clearly predestined end, is the manner in which The Scientist is initially corrupt; he blindly and disrespectfully (disrespectful of consequence) assumes he is right and good enough, in himself, to follow a path towards great power.

It's at this point that we could extrapolate The Scientist as either a basic father figure or an archetype of something greater. In such, we could choose to see The Scientist as a figure tantamount to a world-leading force, and so in turn see the use of him as a critique of people in power; those who run countries and the economy. And it's through this line of thought that you arrive at the conclusion that this is a film about the good and the bad of capitalism, or even people in high places of power and influence. Again, I think this is a valid interpretation of this narrative, but I can't help but recognise the appeal to the average person confronting and then walking away from The Scientist, or this archetype of power. If Miette and One took over The Scientist's lab in the end, then this film would follow the archetypal structure of something such as Mad Max: Fury Road, in which minorities, or representatives of the downtrodden masses, reclaim power. With the pair escaping The Scientist there seems to be an appeal to the re-establishment of something resembling a basic family structure; an idea that doesn't have so much to do with grander themes of capitalism and governmental power even though they may be partially featured in this narrative. With the ending, it then seems to be confirmed that this is a film about family and father figures' impact on children.

Whilst we have discussed much about the father figures, we haven't yet touched on the children. These would be the many creations of The Scientist and then One's little brother and sister, Miette and Denree. It is quite clear why The Scientist's creations are corrupt and, to varying degrees, broken. However, what is it that One represents that is so good for Miette and Denree? My favourite implication of this narrative answers this question: you have to, to a certain degree, be a child to raise an adult. This is a very profound notion that not only suggests that an adult, a parental figure, needs to be understanding of a child (and so must see themself as one), but that they must assume that they are just as naive as their children are at times and that they, one day, will be cared for (hopefully) by their children. This in turn implies that, whilst adults should not act like children - and such is suggested with One's strength and his mature sense of loyalty and compassion as he searches for and protects his siblings - they should be able to see eye-to-eye with a child as a means of giving them the tools to outgrow themselves. This is a topic that we delved into when looking at Coraline. Both parents and children have the potential to descend into an Oedipal relationship where the child and parent are too attached to one another for their own good and to a degree that inhibits their growth as people. If parents do not allow their children to outgrow them, their maturation will then be stunted - and quite possibly chronically. Similarly, an adult too will become a monster of sorts; something like the Other Mother from Coraline, or The Scientist in this narrative who welcomes his own destruction by loving himself (by proxy, his creations) too much.

The connection between children and father figures in this narrative is all predicated on the idea of compassion. Compassion itself is a difficult idea as it doesn't just mean caring for someone, nor does it mean giving yourself to another person out of charity. If compassion is to be an action, not just a feeling of pity that someone does nothing but sit in, then compassion should not be thought of as a selfless ideal. In fact, selflessness is, in my opinion, a terrible idea on two major fronts. Firstly, to be selfless, you must entirely sacrifice yourself to someone else. This, in a way, is not a terrible idea as sacrifice and compromise are major tenants of a functional society. However, if you completely give yourself to someone else, you put yourself in a dangerous position. You not only rely on them to give themself to you entirely too, but you run the risk of developing an over-dependent relationship that, like the parent-child Oedipal relationship, is detrimental for all involved - thus a little spark of independence is necessary for all relationships (which, funnily, the Octopus twins in this narrative do not have). Second to these issues, however, selflessness is, like perfection, an impossible thing to achieve. Beyond dying for someone, people know that, even if it is unlikely that they will get something in return, that they are doing something for something - immaterial, emotional or internally self-fulfilling - in return. To get slightly abstract and to solidify this proposal, people may even die for another person, or, knowing full-well that an action is bad for their health and will go completely unrecognised, will still sacrifice something, because they have higher ideals or hopes such as, or tantamount to, heaven; in death, they assume they will be rewarded. So, on top of selflessness being a terrible idea if considered too seriously (as said, sacrifice is still immeasurably important), it is technically impossible for a healthy human commit to, let alone sustain under. After all, the subtext is built into the word, "selfless": it is impossible to, or even if it is, I doubt we want to, lose our individual sense of self.

To reconcile ideas of compassion, selflessness and sacrifice, people have to come to terms with a set of social exchanges. And what this again expands upon is the Oedipal relationship. But, without returning to this idea yet, understanding the function of compassion as a tool with which you engage the world and people in an exchange of good deeds, we can see why vanity is foundationally wrong. This idea, vanity as an ultimate form of corruption, seems to be a very old. We see this through the phrase "all in vain". This means that something was pointless, but "vain" itself means having an (excessively) high opinion of yourself. Why do we as a society that use this phrase - even without thinking deeply into it - attribute narcissism with pointlessness? The answer to this question rests in the figure of The Scientist. He creates his 'family' from himself; he does not find a woman to love and begin a family with. He concocts these things alone in his lab. This is an ultimate form of vanity as he attempts to create a perpetual cycle of social exchange within himself; his perfect creations serve him only without him having to serve them; he is asking them to be selfless. But, if they are human, they cannot be selfless and existentially bound to their creator as an emotional slave built for one purpose. This is why the mother and eldest son kill their father/husband. This is why creations turn on their corrupt and imperfect creators; they refuse the slave-like or Oedipal relationship that is predicated on poisonous selflessness.

With that established, however, we could falsely deduce the idea that anyone who creates something did so in vain and must be destroyed by their son/daughter. To a certain extent, this phenomena is metaphorically true; children do not want to be their parents and so their most crucial stages of maturity are defined by rebellion. Children then must transcend and kill off all that they do not like, or, rather, all that is not good, about their parents whilst absorbing all that is good into their own self. With that said, the literal killing of one's parents shouldn't happen - and this is usually because, to put it starkly, parents don't often deserve to be murdered - good parents especially. One is an example of this: he is a good parental figure that doesn't deserve to be murdered (unlike The Scientist who is allowed to die - there is a notable difference between letting someone die and killing them, however). As alluded to, what makes One a good father figure is compassion, is his ability to both look after and appear as a child to Miette and Dunree. He then, unlike The Scientist, engages in a positive social exchange with his adopted siblings instead of setting up a vain positive feedback loop which inevitably will blow a fuse. And that is the last crucial detail of the cautionary tale that The Scientist represents: setting up that positive feedback loop is so wrong because it is vain; because it yields no positive product (emotional and material) that is distributed into society - The Scientist is serving himself alone and in vain.

Because The Scientist demonstrates no sense of compassion, self-sacrifice and responsibility, his creations then not only turn on him, but start to destroy the world as an extension of his own selfishness. This is exactly why Krank steals children's dreams which fuels the Octopus' thief-turned-slave orphanage organisation. What's more, Krank's corruption fuels the religious turmoil in the city - the organisation that want to steal everyone's sight and sacrifice themselves to God. These people are all corrupt and, by working selfishly - sometimes pretending to be selfless - and in vain, enact numerous positive feedback loops of devastation and malevolence throughout society. Thus, the whole city slowly descends into chaos. This is a phenomena - innocuous individual actions contributing to the downfall of a nation - that historians and theorists use to describe how Nazi Germany and Communist Russia were established and became so murderously corrupt; all it takes is the lightest tip of the first individual domino. A figure that is then particularly divisive, yet seemingly practical and purposefully placed into this narrative, is the flea circus ringmaster who's fleas injected people with a serum that has them turn on one another. He seems to play a pivotal role in letting the corrupt destroy themselves so that the righteous may prevail.

The final message of this film, having established these ideas of corruption, compassion and the significance of father figures, then sees Krank get exactly what he wants and Miette grow up during their final confrontation in the dream machine. Krank, who, like Coraline, over indulges in dreams and childhood, is made a child whose evil and vain positive feedback loop keeps him perpetually immature. Added to this, Miette, who not only finds and establishes a loving relationship with One, but is willing to sacrifice herself for it, then out-grows Krank and, despite his intellect, outsmarts him. What this then suggests is that good parents, good parental figures, give birth not only to good children, but children who will transcend their being, whilst corrupt, vain parental figures lay the tracks for the possible destruction of everything. This is why, in the end, seeing all of his papers raining aflame around him, that The Scientist suddenly doesn't want to die; he is reminded of who he was and seemingly falls in love with his own creations again; he cannot, and does not, change himself, only hides away from society and the past. A natural order then finalises his movement towards destruction with the bird perching on the detonator. What can be said of his children after this, who escape the explosion in the boat, is unknown. Maybe this is a positive caveat; maybe they will be good men despite their father's corruption. What is not ambiguous, however, is the journey that One, Miette and Dunree have established; it is one, thanks to its basis in rational compassion, that will mature along a path towards a higher place - a place that is hopefully not one of lost children searching for good parental figures to guide them.

It's this profound and intricate subtext - which has more elements to it than what we've covered - that really seals The City Of Lost Children as a great film in my view. However, these are just my thoughts. Have you seen The City Of Lost Children? What do you think about all we've covered, and maybe skipped over, today?

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