My Life As A Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette)

Switzerland/France (2016) Dir. Claude Barras

Aside from the surreal French/Belgian A Town Called Panic and some segments in The ABCs Of Death horror anthologies, I can’t recall seeing a stop-motion animation film that covers adult issues in such an unapologetically frank manner. This doesn’t exclude younger viewers from enjoying this film but it’s a case of “if” they fully grasp the gravity of its themes.

Icare is a saturnine 9 year-old boy with a penchant for drawing, living in the attic of the apartment with his alcoholic mother since his father left them years earlier. When his mother is accidentally killed in a fall from the ladder leading to the attic, Icare, who is used to being called Courgette, is taken to an orphanage by kind policeman Raymond.

There, Courgette is bullied by the eldest boy Simon but wins him over after beating him in a fight, then befriends another new arrival, 10 year-old Camille, with whom he falls in love. Once both are settled into the rhythms and life in the orphanage, the kids bond, understanding how to trust and love again and more importantly, what a family truly is.

We all know the Oscars recently had a huge fire lit under it over the diversity issue over concerning race and gender, yet films from the world cinema bracket are still relegated to its own microscopic category. Worse still, awards in the animation category appear to be perpetually reserved solely for Pixar and Disney, meaning this touching Gallic gem had to sit in the shadow of Zootropolis.   

A brisk 66 minutes is all director Claude Barras needs to rip our hearts out then put them back with a newfound warm glow as he details the bumpy navigation through life of these endearing orphans. Based on the 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette by Gilles Paris, Barras enlists the help of, among others, fellow filmmaker Céline Sciamma with the screenplay, herself no stranger to affecting coming-of-age dramas.

The character designs of the kids are deliberately cartoonish with their big melancholic eyes and tiny mouths set in oversized heads atop smallish bodies, a combination of cute and vulnerable, but the claymation manipulation allows them to react and emote in subtle ways that feel more real than if it were a straight animation or even live action.

Courgette cuts a sad figure from his first appearance on screen as a child picking up his mother’s abandoned beer cans from the floor where his crayons are. His attic room is bare save for the drawings on the wall of his father as a caped superhero which also adorns a kite that serves as one of the two mementos Courgette takes with him to the orphanage, the other being a beer can.

Raymond takes a shine to Courgette and visits him regularly at the orphanage, and if you think you’ve guessed where this relationship ends up you’re correct but not without a few twists first. The staff at the home are also kind and loving adults, making it somewhere the kids don’t want to leave in preference to their previous homes – those that still have that option at least.

The other orphans all have depressing backstories, their parents being drug addicts, abusive, criminals, absent or dead. A running motif is young Béatrice who rushes out to the yard every time someone arrives hoping it is her mother, only to turn away in disappointment. Simon as the oldest comes across as a tormentor but in fact he is a covert big brother looking out for the youngsters, but it is Camille and her overt caring that unites the group.

It might sound contrived but the script is far too clever to fall into sentimentality for the sake of it, preferring the subtle route of letting the camaraderie of the orphans speak for itself and stir our emotions that way. Despite Camille reading Kafka and Simon’s tough love tactics, they are just kids, illustrated in their understanding of how sex works which is so typical of ill-informed childish gibberish yet inadvertently accurate in its reductive deconstruction.

By bonding over their abandonment, the children have convinced themselves they can only rely on the home staff and themselves, having concluded through their experiences that other adults are not good people. Yet, the yearning for maternal love remains; in one poignant scene during their ski trip they witness a boy their age being tended to by his mother, each one staring at this tableau in a longing, nostalgic silence.

Over time, we forget this is a stop motion animation production through the precision of the astutely defined characters and the humane realism in the writing. Everything feels natural and plausible – maybe the revenge on Camille’s grotty abusive aunt is a little fanciful – and the world these children inhabit is no less believable than if it were real bricks and mortar, grass and sky.

The French voice cast of mostly unknowns are delightful, the younger ones being the same age as their characters, adding plenty of realism and natural nuanced inflection to the dialogue without forced playing for emotion. There is an English dub boasting some Hollywood names in the adult roles but I doubt it carries the same sensitivity and purity.

Some films feel too long – this one feels too short but it doesn’t waste a second of its 66 minutes on subplots and extraneous distractions. It runs in a linear line from start to finish, saying everything it has to without compromising a single iota of integrity or pushing the message too forcefully. In fact, it’s less didactic, showing little sign of being driven by any manifesto beyond telling the story at hand, which is a huge part of its affecting magic.

As much as I enjoyed Zootropolis, I do think My Life As A Courgette is the more “special” film and deserved the Oscar more, for its originality, boldness, humanity, heart and quietly devastating emotional resonance. Vraiment très bien.