Wednesday 7 June 2017

All the small things: "My Life as a Courgette"

The stopmotion animation My Life as a Courgette has the year's most amenable running time - a mere 66 minutes - which means that director Claude Barras and writer Céline Sciamma, adapting a novel by Gilles Paris, have had to pack a lot into relatively short spaces. Their opening sequence, for starters, unfolds in just under five minutes a small lifetime of hurt. We watch as our hero, the nine-year-old nicknamed Courgette - but christened, with malicious irony, Icare - puts the finishing touches to a drawing on a homemade kite, sets it to flying, begins retrieving the discarded cans left about his poky residence by his alcoholic mother, converts these cans into a metallic pyramid, accidentally demolishes it, then - when maman storms up the stairs to thrash him for making a racket - slams the attic door on her head, leading to a fall and our boy being taken into care. At this point, the kite drifts back in through the open bedroom window and sags disconsolately on the floor. Playtime's over, kid. 

This early movement allows us time to register a revealing level of production detail: consider, if you can bear to, the significance of the asymmetrical family photograph half-glimpsed on mother's bedside table, the corner bearing the image of Courgette's absent father haphazardly torn off. (Later, we learn that said papa was the model for the superhero Courgette crayonned onto that kite: this, perhaps, was the lad's way of hanging onto him.) Barras's film is unusual for setting out before us a gang of children who've genuinely been damaged or traumatised one way or another. Like Courgette, the care home's other residents have been modelled with eyes like vast portholes, frequently brimming with tears; they bear scars or plasters about their faces, and several engage in compulsive forms of behaviour, seeking solace or stability in routine. The abandonment common in family films - even a great family film like Finding Nemo - is generally temporary, and apt to be presented as a form of adventure, a learning experience; here, it's mundane, and near-absolute. As house bully Simon shrugs, in one of his sporadic displays of vulnerability: "Nobody loves us any more."

Well, you say: maybe it's 66 minutes because we couldn't take any more. Yet Sciamma (past master of complicated kids: remember Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood) and Barras imbue it with the soursweet dimension and textures of a sherbet lemon: a small treat you might thoughtfully, even wistfully, suck on for a little while. Most immediately, they give this story colour, a pastel-pencil palette that looks appealing on Tube posters and fair pops off the screen, as if Courgette were illustrating the story of his own salvation. They lend it leftfield humour, too: these kids are of an age where they're both curious and clueless about the particulars of sex - in a wider sense, how on earth they got here - arriving between them at a scenario where "the man's willy explodes" and the woman lies there in agreement ("oh yes, yes, yes!"). What holds Sciamma's sometimes skittish writing together is an idea about the incorruptible sweetness of even the most damaged youngsters, those reserves of innocence and optimism that somehow survive the worst traumas: to witness Courgette handing his sweetheart Camille a belated birthday present on the grounds "I didn't know you three months ago" is to feel your heart melt like so much chocolate pudding.

It's typical, however, of the vast amounts of affection the filmmakers pump onto their sets, perhaps to compensate for what these lives lack elsewhere. You sense it not just in the ever-intensive labour required to make these maquettes move (and to make them moving) - a physical, hands-on connection beyond the reach of most CG animators - but in the growing closeness of Courgette and Camille, and of the two care home workers whose nascent romance offers an adult mirror to this restorative puppy love. As anybody with experience of adoption will know, there's no easy or obvious happy ending to these stories. Instead, Sciamma and Barras offer us something special, not least for its ability to suggest a world beyond these 66 minutes: a list of questions - caveats, really - which the care home kids toss at a new mother, inquiring whether she would still love her newborn under certain circumstances ("Even if he farts?", "Even if he becomes a cop?"). Here is a children's film with the wisdom to know nobody can tell how the life of a child will turn out - and yet hopeful enough to believe that, if that child is lucky enough, the answer to all these questions lies in the affirmative.

My Life as a Courgette is now screening in both subtitled and dubbed versions in selected cinemas.  

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