Director Claude Barras
Writer Celine Sciamma, Claude Barras, Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro
Lead Gaspard Schlatter
Box Office $5.6m
This Swiss-French production is a meek, bleak look at child neglection in the form of stop motion animation. The film, that has an incredibly short runtime of 65 minutes, opened at Cannes in the summer of 2016. By the beginning of 2017 it was nominated for the best animation feature at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Not just the best animated feature, the best foreign feature at the Academy Awards too.
For Claude Barras, the director, it was his first film. Some achievement.
Admittedly, I didn’t see a lot of the opening part of the film, Edward’s head blocked most of the television as I craned around him to see the stupendous animation. Any animation is like crack to pre-school children. Of course, I understand, and understood going in, that this isn’t a children’s animation film. The subject matter is a morbid and bleak one. I rewound and started again.
You can see that just from the colours of the opening sequence. From the colours of the little boy Courgette (or Zucchini for North Americans). Pale face, baggy eyes and light blue hair. The landscape is so moody is can only come from the conglomerated minds of the French and Swiss. It is beautiful.
The opening sequence where Courgette is being shouted at by an unseen figure from below, is one of many heartbreaking scenes. Courgette sleeps in a loft conversion bedroom, as does my son Edward, so they hit it off immediately. Ed’s face was printed onto the screen by the end of the film.
Nonetheless, the opening sequence: Courgette building a pyramid of beer cans wouldn’t be out of place in a kitchen sink drama in the North of England. In fact, the house setting for the opening reminded me of a lot of films: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for one, The Selfish Giant another and even the likes of Kes, where we see not necessarily abused children but forgotten children, low on life’s totem pole. It resonates very heavily. I think in its animated life, the film gives us this innocence – the core of the film – and plunges into depths of every character at the children’s home.
Once the film had evoked all of the films that are local and comfortable for me, almost like a home or a well-worn pair of Adidas Sambas, I immediately twigged a slight resemblance in our main character, Courgette. Courgette reminded me, if he had a shorter, browner haircut, of the young boy in various animated road safety advertisements in the United Kingdom from a couple of years ago (picture below).
In all seriousness though, it is a fantastic piece of storytelling. As a screenwriter of equally morbid tastes, this is a level I can only aspire to. A morbidity but a sense of warmth. A film has either one or the though usually when it aims for both.
One minute in and the adage: show, don’t tell, is woven into the film perfectly. There’s not often you can get a family’s backstory in one shot.
What do we glean from this? Courgette is a boy forgotten about in the face of a family fractured by a vanishing father and an alcoholic mother. One shot. I don’t know if you’ve seen Avengers Assemble or not but it took about four and a half films and around a billion dollars in production costs to give them backstories. One shot, a couple of miniature figures and someone who’s a dab hand at set design and painting.
I implore you to find a better opening sequence in a film. I won’t ruin the ending of the 5-minute sequence, but it definitely fits into the bleak nature of the film. In essence, isn’t that film? One of Stanley Kubrick’s right-hand men on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey said that the legendary director stated if he had a dozen or so good 20-minute segments then he had a good film. It gives you a sense of 2001 but in My Life as a Courgette the film could easily be boiled down into these opening five minutes. And that’s just the set up. Time’s precious in a 65-minute film and Barras uses it perfectly.
I also implore for you to find a better film couple than Courgette and the enigmatic Camille.
The animation is a pure delight. This is why I watched the film back in French. The intensity, the mood, the bleakness had hooked me in. I don’t make a big habit of watching films in a language I don’t speak. I once watched Episode II of Star Wars in Italian whilst in the French Alps as I was spoonfed painkillers for a damaged knee ligament by a Business Studies teacher. I don’t even like Star Wars in English.
Into a children’s home Courgette goes and, well… Is it possible to cry at a film not in your own language without the aid of subtitles? Watch it dubbed/subtitled and then watch it in the original French and get back to me. I was chopping onions for 65 minutes.
5 bowls of courgetti spaghetti out of 5.