ARTS; FILM; Living in a fantasy world

From dream to nightmare: `Delicatessen' was a surprise success, but `City of Lost Children' did badly at Cannes. Chris Peachment met Jeunet & Caro, film-makers and purveyors of the weird
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IN THIS, the centenary year of cinema, Georges Melies has been getting short shrift. The brothers Lumiere are everywhere celebrated as the inventors of the medium. And their brand of realism is still the predominant mode of film. But while they were showing audiences shots of a railway engine arriving at a station (admittedly people ran screaming from the auditorium), Melies, a conjuror, was exploring the medium's possibil-ities for trickery and fantasy. His was a world of people disappearing in puffs of smoke, or walking on the moon. No wonder that the French Surrealists resurrected him as the very first surrealist of film and the harbinger of cinema's power to create other worlds.

French cinema at the moment is still largely in thrall to the realism of the brothers Lumiere. Even a determined fantasist such as Bertrand Blier still concentrates on the weirdness of human psychology in a recognisable setting. To find the inheritors of Melies' mantle, one has to turn to an extraordinary double act: Jean Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (Jeunet is the one with hair, Caro is the bald imp). The pair surprised everybody by coming out of nowhere in 1991 with Delicatessen, a dystopian vision of the future, where a butcher had no meat for his customers - until some vagrant went missing, when suddenly saucisson was back on the menu.

What they have come up with now, City of Lost Children, was in fact a project they began working on long before Delicatessen, but which was shelved as too expensive to make. It was the success of Delicatessen which not only persuaded the backers of the duo's viability, but also allowed the money men to understand just what sort of cinema they were creating. "At FF90m, this is one of the most expensive French films ever made," says Jeunet, "but it was relatively easy to raise the money. The hardest task our producer, Claudie Ossard, had was getting the money for Delicatessen. It was very difficult to explain just what the vision we had in mind would look like. Once everyone had seen that first film, then they knew what we were up to."

It is very unusual to find two directors working together who are not brothers. The Italian brothers Taviani and the American brothers Coen both work together on set, taking turns to shoot each scene, sometimes each take. Jeunet and Caro's method is different.

"First we throw some ideas in a box and shake it around. Then Marc begins the script with another writer, in this case Gilles Adrein. Then he storyboards the whole film." This involves drawing what each scene will look like, a task for which Caro is ideally suited, since he began life, like Fellini with his fumetti, as a cartoonist for the popular French bandes dessinees. "Once shooting begins," says Jeunet, "I take care of directing the actors, while Marc tends to work on the scenery and effects."

"I like to work with my hands," says Caro. "In fact City of Lost Children was slightly frustrating, since so much of it was done digitally in the studio. I like to splash a bit of paint around on the set."

It is just and fitting that they both get a directing credit, since so much of the film depends upon the look of the world that they create. One is reminded of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger always insisting that they get co-credit for everything, in spite of the former doing the directing and the latter the writing. "In our film," says Caro, "there is an octopus which cooks with four of its tentacles. We do a film with four eyes."

They first met at an animation festival at Annecy, and discovered that they liked the same sort of films. Jeunet had left school in Nancy at 17, and followed his father by working for the local telephone company. As a child, Caro had led a nomadic existence, with a father who sold things in fairs and markets. He became a cartoonist, but also worked with puppets. Together, throughout the 1980s, they began to direct short animation films, video clips and title sequences. Jeunet remembers Pinocchio as the first film he ever saw, and a lasting influence:

"Like most kids of that time, the most passionate discussions in the playground were about the latest Disney. We had those little machines in which you ran a loop of celluloid, just like those old Victorian bio- scopes. And later a little primitive projector. And we would re-hash the dialogue and change the storyline all the time." "I remember often being frightened as a kid," Caro says, "especially over things like when Pinocchio's nose grows. But it is often delicious to be frightened."

City of Lost Children certainly has a strong scare-factor. It is set in a misty waterfront town, which Marseilles should have looked like long ago, but probably never did. To this place comes an enormous American called One (played by Ron Perlman), a former whale harpooner who gave up his job when he heard the whales singing. While searching for his lost young brother, he teams up with Miette, the nine-year-old leader of a gang of orphans who has a ferocious temper. Out in the bay, on an oil rig surrounded by mines, lives a mad inventor called Krank. He is ageing prematurely because he cannot dream, and so he is kidnapping children from the town in order to steal their dreams with the aid of bizarre machinery. And that is only the half of it.

There is an Oliver Twist-like academy run by two Siamese-twin sisters, who instruct their proteges in the art of theft. There is an opium addict who trains strange mechanical fleas to inject people with mind-bending drugs. There is a talking brain in a tank (voice courtesy of Jean Louis Trintingnant) and there are six cloned brothers all played by Dominique Pinon, the creased-rubber-faced man from Delicatessen. And the list goes on.

One could cite innumerable influences for this kind of fantasy, and they duly do: "The brothers Grimm. Cocteau. Charles Dickens - a man who has fixed London forever in our minds, as a place of myth, a place which could never have existed." Mix all that up with a healthy dose of Monty Python, The Avengers, and Mission: Impossible, all of which they admit to being addicted to, and you get some rough idea of their vision.

But it is the idea of stealing children which provides the film's strongest frisson of fear. It is like Peter Pan in reverse; a place where children are taken against their will, and have their childhood stolen from them. "Yes, it is a little like a vampire movie," says Jeunet, "except that here, he is sucking dreams, not blood. That is more scary, I think."

Still, the film appeals most strongly to children between the ages of 12 and 18. "They are used to playing video games these days," says Jeunet, "so they can understand the sort of complex structure we go in for, which withholds a lot of information at first. Kids are sophisticated these days. But they still like a little fright. When they tell their parents about the film, it's the parents who get all concerned. Actually, compared to what television throws at them these days, our films are like rose water. Plus, like classical fairy tales, our film does have a happy ending."

It is also noticeable that the actors in their films would not exactly answer a casting call in Hollywood for handsome matinee idols. Ron Perlman has a prognathous face which wouldn't disgrace an Easter Island statue. He was one of the monks in The Name of the Rose, the one with a hump and medieval teeth. And Krank, the mad inventor, is played by Daniel Emilfork, not a well-known name, but a face immediately recognisable from the hundreds of European films which require a man who looks like a camel. "It's a question of taste, really," says Jeunet. "You can like Greek sculpture. Or you can like African and pre-Columban sculpture. We like pre-Columban sculpture. It is coherent with the sort of world we create. Handsome or even neutral faces just wouldn't fit in with the scenery. Glamour would lose out against the backdrop."

Much of the film was created digitally in a studio, which accounts for the long gestation period (five months) and much of the cost. But it enabled the film to have, among other things, six identical brothers all interacting in the same scene, without the viewer wondering where the join mark is. It also enabled them to create the extraordinary little mechanical flea which zooms around injecting people's scalps with its proboscis.

"Actually, that is not a special effect," says Jeunet. "We got Gerard Depardieu and put him in a flea costume, with a special Cyrano nose."

For their next project they are planning nothing more than a holiday. They are reading a lot and coming up with ideas, but they may well not collaborate on them. In the meantime, City of Lost Children has opened successfully in France, much of Europe, and French Canada. "Oh, and the Congo. We are very big in the Congo."

! `City of Lost Children' (15) opens nationwide, Fri.