A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.
There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.
The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.
A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.
Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”
The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.
A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).
If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.
As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.
The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)
We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.
Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.
Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.