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DELIVERY FROM THE 'DELICATESSEN' DUO : It's Dawn of a New Age--on Only $14 Million

December 17, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

In their spectacular debut film of 1991, "Delicatessen," the French filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro invented their own universe. A nightmarish dystopia similar to those evoked in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," "Delicatessen" takes place in a condemned apartment building where cannibalism is the order of the day, a tenant lives in a flooded basement where he grows and eats snails, and never a shard of sunlight pierces the gloomy sky.

Caro and Jeunet haven't left that building for their second film, "The City of Lost Children," which opens Friday. Rather, they've simply moved to a larger canvas so they can show us an entire creepy town. Largely inspired by the work of Gustave Dore, a French illustrator of the 19th century whose work was dominated by a love of the bizarre, the film draws chiefly on Dore's drawings of Dickens' London.

A nostalgic evocation of the future as envisioned by Jules Verne, with costumes by noted fashion fantasist Jean-Paul Gaultier and music by Angelo BadalamentiSP? (known for his work with David Lynch), the film is set on the eve of the birth of the industrial revolution, which is depicted as already encrusted with rust and grime. The story focuses on the adventures of a plucky young girl named Miette (played by Judith Vittet), and her companion the circus strongman, played by Ron Perlman. Their mission: to rescue the children abducted by Krank, a wizened villain who steals children's dreams in an effort to prevent himself from aging.

"This film occupies the same world as 'Delicatessen,' but it's 20 years later and some big ecological disaster has occurred," Jeunet says during a joint interview at a West Hollywood hotel. "I consider myself an optimist, yet I have no doubt humanity will disappear from the Earth in 50 years from now, at the most, and only insects will be left," he cheerfully adds.

Based on a script by Caro, Jeunet and Gilles Adrien (who supplied dialogue), the film was shot over five months last year entirely on sound stages in France for a budget of $14 million. It was a huge success in Europe but may have a tougher time here because of its R rating.

"We're quite unhappy with the rating because in France kids have no problem with the film," Jeunet says. "They identify with the little girl, and because of playing video games, have a high degree of visual sophistication. It seems ridiculous to prohibit them from seeing the film because it has bizarre images, considering that every time you turn on the TV you're bombarded with images of violence."

Adds Caro: "This is basically a cultural problem. There are things in the films made here that Americans take in stride, but are completely shocking to people from other cultures. Audiences here, for instance, are very comfortable with weapons whereas we find them deeply disturbing."

"Moreover, we wanted the film to be frightening," continues Jeunet. "When we were kids we loved it when our mother told us scary stories, and fairy tales have always been impregnated with elements of cruelty. You find the same ingredients in the fairy tales of almost every culture; they take place in a dark, somber forest where an ogre lives, there's a vampire or some other kind of monster, and a little lost child who goes through some kind of initiation. It's much healthier for kids to be afraid of those things than to see crimes involving weapons."

The hero of the film as played by Ron Perlman isn't far afield from from the character he created in the popular television series "Beauty and the Beast."

"There was a very specific quality this character had to give off, and when I saw Ron in the film 'Chronos,' I immediately knew he was right for the part," says Caro of Perlman, who doesn't speak French and learned his lines phonetically. Even more challenging than the language barrier, however, was the fact that Perlman plays nearly all his scenes with children.

"When you're dealing with animals and special effects as this film does, everything is hard, but the toughest part of the shoot was working with small children," says Jeunet. "I'd say 'OK, today we're gonna do this,' and they'd reply 'No, I'm not gonna do that.' There are several scenes in the film of children crying, but we couldn't make them cry--we had to wait until they cried for their own reasons--for hours and hours we waited.

"We also had problems with the sea gulls, which we needed for scenes set on a dock," he continues. "Sea gulls use the wind to fly, but we were shooting on a sound stage where there was no wind. Because of the odd conditions they couldn't land on the water very poetically--they sort of crash landed."

A key character in the film is an evil flea, which was created using the same techniques used in "Jurassic Park." Caro points out with a laugh that "since we're just French people from a small country, we use that technology only to make fleas."

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