Object of Emotion: My Life as a Courgette

Loss of innocence is often depicted as a sudden transformation, a crossing of a Rubicon that can’t be reversed. In Swiss-French animated film My Life as a Courgette it is instead portrayed as a delicate peeling away of childhood’s illusions. From the vantage point of adulthood, it is a painful yet frequently delightful journey to watch.

This stop-motion film opens in the attic of 9-year-old Icare, better known as Courgette (the French film title is Ma Vie de Courgette). Courgette’s face is coloured with the palette of a washed out clown: a red French fry nose, sheet-white skin, large eyes circled in a blue hue with azure hair to match. His cartoon appearance complements the themes of the film; Courgette retains the playfulness of youth but life has stubbed out the possibility of carefree abandon. He gathers beer cans tossed by his alcoholic mother and assembles wobbly towers in the attic.

When his single mother suddenly dies, newly orphaned Courgette is interviewed by a kindly police officer, Raymond. In this scene, the emotional depth of the film becomes clear. Courgette tacitly acknowledges his mother’s neglectful treatment of him while offering “the fun times” and her “really good mash potatoes” as counterbalance; a resentment-free outlook near incompatible with adulthood. Courgette then asks to be returned to his mother. He is taken to an orphanage.

For a film centred on an orphan, My Life as a Courgette is remarkably cliché free. Director Claude Barras avoids depicting parentless children in either an overtly maudlin or hyper-romantic fashion.  His dexterous storytelling captures the simultaneously liberating and traumatic freefall of losing all bonds and ties, in a way that calls to mind Wes Anderson’s irreverent yet sensitive Moonrise Kingdom.

The orphanage is a large, bright manor in the country, much more appealing than Courgette’s ill-kept house. Nevertheless, to Courgette, it is an alien and scary place. The animators subtly render his downheartedness so that the friendly surroundings of the classrooms and communal bedrooms seem to exacerbate his longing for home. Its comforts are a source of woe.

An adaptation of a Gilles Paris novel, this film is defined by its impressive characterisation. Archetypes at the orphanage—the puritanical headmistress, the bully—expand as the story progresses to include angles of personality initially invisible. There are no veering epiphanies, just the deft drip-drip of Courgette’s discoveries. As he gets to know his fellow orphans, so does the audience. The bully becomes Simon: a plucky, considerate young boy who happens to be the son of two drug addicts.

The children share a common fate, though each has lived a different story. The tragic tales of their past furnish the audience’s understanding of the children’s actions, for instance, Simon’s horrible upbringing is manifest in his refusing to wash. The stories also act as the cornerstones of the children’s individual identities, and choosing when and with whom to share their stories is of great importance. What happened before the orphanage is both an ever-present burden and a rarely shared intimacy. Perhaps this is loss of innocence: the acquisition of pain that can never truly be shed.

Everything changes at the orphanage with the arrival of Camille, a forthright, Kafka-reading ten-year-old. The whole clan of kids is smitten with her, none more so than Courgette. His existential sighs are replaced by the exhales of exaltation. He is eyes-to-the-sky-in-love. However, even amid the dizzying distraction of Camille, the orphans do not forget themselves. In one striking scene, the group stare at a doting mother and child as if they happened upon a pair of wild animals: strange, alluring, ultimately unknowable.

The heart bursting double-act of Courgette and Camille takes the centre stage of the film, and the inevitable return of Camille’s wicked aunt provides stakes. Camille’s aunt is the only character—adult or child—given short shrift in terms of personality. She’s a Punch and Judy marionette villain in a world of carefully crafted people. And with no other character in My Life as a Courgette do you doubt the puppets are people.

This anthropomorphic quality can be attributed to two factors in the film’s production. Firstly, a “real-life” version of this film was shot over six weeks, and the facial expressions captured informed the animators’ work over the next three years. Second, the animators chose to use puppets with large faces so as to retain greater control over emotional expression. Each smile, frown and grimace is deliberate and chosen.

Throughout the film objects are invested with meaning. All the children are object poor, and they cherish the items they do possess, as evident when Courgette nearly breaks Simon’s arm to get his kite back. What the children lack is also of great significance. For example, Simon dreams of receiving a letter from his absent parents. Here, the film taps into a universal truth: we live in a material world and what we have and don’t have can have an enormous effect on the lives we lead, especially as children when we make sense of the world primarily through physical objects.

Yet My Life as a Courgette touches on an even deeper point: that material objects are malleable and that the meanings projected upon objects evolve, too. For Courgette, a single beer can is a building block, then a memorial, and later bent into a boat as a gift for Camille. This reshaping of materials to serve meaning is miraculously human. And the film itself is an example of this heartening endeavour: take some clay, metal, foam, and resin, add years of painstaking labour, throw in some expert storytelling and, voila, a masterpiece teeming with the joy and sadness of being alive.

50 Shades Darker

I walk into the cinema with finesse, style and gumption. Nothing’s going to stop me from watching a film I say to myself. Nothing. Unless something happens to me that means I can’t watch the film? Who knows…I guess I’ll find out. Oh, I almost forgot to mention I’m reviewing the film too.

Nearly two years have passed since the last 50 Shades came out but it feels like yesterday. Strange. Then again, I was in a coma for two years. How could I forget? Sustained brain damage.

I sink into my seat like the Titanic sank into the ocean. I’m dressed for the occasion wearing my brand new trench coat with easy-wash inner-lining bought especially for 50 Shades Darker. In one pocket of my coat I have an Austen and in the other I’ve got a Brontë. It doesn’t matter which novels in particular, or even which specific Brontë. If I reference their names then I must really love literature and anything I write will be literary, intelligent and clever.

The movie begins just like that. ‘Wow’ my subconscious tells me. I concur and agree. Cinema’s amazing. My stomach fills with liquid desire better known as Fanta Orange. I begin to jot down my most thoughtful thoughts in my Versace notebook, which is also sponsored by Apple:

Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson) is just your ordinary twenty-something woman trying to make her way in the world. She’s got a job at a publishing house, a cosy apartment in Seattle, but most of all, she’s got her independence. But here’s the twist: Ana Steele has got a terrible haircut. And despite that hair, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a business tycoon who dabbles in S&M sex stuff, wants to get back with her. 

But Ana’s totally moved on from Grey. Or has she? At this early stage in the film it’s hard to say because when Grey sends her flowers Ana considers throwing them away but ultimately doesn’t. So suspenseful.

Ana’s a pretty shy person. Every fibre of her being whispers “I’m a mouse in human form,” though this isn’t a line in the film because fibres of beings keep pretty stumjust ask Nietzsche, who may have something to say on the subject.

Ana’s shyness is put to the test when she turns up at her friend’s gallery launch and sees photos of herself that she posed for when her friend who’s a photographer asked her to. You can see why she feels so aggrieved; there are six massive black and white photos of her and she’s smelling her clothes in at least four of them. This is speculative but it looks very much like a case of wishful smelling. We’ve all been there.

All the photos of Anna are purchased by a mystery buyer. I initially suspect the photographer’s Mum, but it turns out it was Christian Grey, flirting in a way that only a rich business man can: by aggressively purchasing your image and person against your will.

I never imagined that my review would be going so well but it is. Wait. Maybe I should mention the things that Dornan and Johnson have been in previously? Like the fact that Jamie Dornan was in hit TV show The Fall, and is actually a capable actor? Or the fact that Dakota Johnson was in A Bigger Splash, and is actually a capable actor? Let’s see:

Ana and Christian sit down in a restaurant to “renegotiate the terms” of their dormant relationship, a bureaucratic transaction that reminds me of the intergalactic trade deals in the sequel Star Wars movies, only without the frisson and pizzaz. Christian wants Ana to be subservient but Ana’s got her own ideas, as demonstrated by the fact she orders her own food  all by herself even though Christian’s meal suggestion sounded much better. Independence comes at a price.

Scared of losing Ana forever, Christian reveals his deep, dark secret: he was abused as a child and his mother was a crack addict. Still, the viewer is left with many questions, like, what’s the back-story to Ana’s hair? Was she attacked by scissors?

Christian and Ana get back together but they take things  slow and only have normal people sex without the help of spring-based contraptions. Unfortunately it’s very dull. When Ana tells Christian that she “needs a roadmap” you assume it’s because reading a map is more interesting than speaking to Christian.

This movie is really boring and my cock agrees and so does my subconscious and also my brain and one of my metatarsals, too. So far, 50 Shades Darker is totally lacking in spice, flavour and synonym.

Complications threaten their rekindled relationship. For instance, one of Christian’s old subservient flames, a girl who looks like she’s from the set of a Japanese horror movie, keeps rearing her pale and scary head. There’s also Ana’s boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) who’s good looking in an evil way and is abusive towards women but without filling out the requisite paperwork beforehand like Christian does.

Still, they ignore these issues and try and build a relationship like any other normal couple: by sending each other passive-aggressive texts by day and attending masque balls by night. In one scene, Christian suggests Ana put a Newton’s Cradle inside herself like an overly ambitious pinball machine and Ana agrees. As the film goes on, we learn that relationships are all about give and take.

Oh God. What if it wasn’t a Newton’s Cradle? What if everyone’s doing this now and I’m the weird one for not knowing about it? I feel a Google search coming on.

Although 50 Shades Darker is a simultaneously messy and tedious film, it has its stronger moments. For instance, when Hyde attempts to sexually assault Ana, the scene has the all the tension of an episode of Mad Men. Unlike Mad Men, the drama resolves thanks to some   previously undisclosed fighting skills. No more Mrs. Mousey!

Other highlights include the one funny zinger in the filmwhen Christian says “I know I’m complicated,”— the best line of Niall Leonard’s script. Bravo. And who knew popstar Rita Ora, couldn’t act? Now, lots of people.

Towards the never-arriving end, Ana and Christian check out The Red Room where he keeps his sex utensils. Christian sure puts the man in manacles; he’s not gay, he’s just very organised. All his whips and chains and buckles are meticulously catalogued. Good for him.

I breathe a breathy breath of air and walk out the cinema. To conclude my lengthy review on such an insignificant non-sensical point could be seen by many as kind of bad terrible and incompetent. Then again maybe it perfectly reflects the never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction the film makes you feel? Who knows? Me knows.

Entertaining Impossible: Hidden Figures

Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures

In 1961, putting a man on the moon was more conceivable than voting a black man into the White House.  To defy gravity, a matter of science, to defy segregation, a crime.

Hidden Figures is a dramatic re-enactment that skilfully explores two historical movements side-by-side: the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement. The first, the embodiment of an all-American enthusiasm for progress, the second, the struggle of African Americans to be treated as equal citizens. Directed by Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures splices these phenomena together by dramatizing the real life achievements of three extraordinary NASA employees, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson, who, at the age of 98, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.

“I don’t entertain the impossible,” says Jackson, played with verve by Janelle Monáe. Yet this movie is all about proving the impossible possible. Jackson fights to become the first black woman to be an aeronautical engineer while Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) chases indispensability as a permanent supervisor. The primary story follows Johnson, as she is assigned to The Space Task Group, a cohort of boffins responsible for safely sending an American into space before the Russians beat them to it.

Initially, Johnson is utilized as a human calculator, a safety net to prevent mathematical error.  However, her savant skills ensure an upward trajectory despite the barriers associated with her gender and race. Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Johnson is one of restrained power, assured in the face of disparagement, ferocious when pushed by injustice.

Racism colours nearly every scene of Hidden Figures,  yet its discomforting hue comes not from the white cloak of the Ku Klux Klan, but the starch white collar of the threatened co-worker. Dispiriting, anonymous gestures remind Johnson that she strays above her station. A ‘colored people’ coffee pot is installed on her arrival, lest she consider herself an equal member of the team. Johnson’s primary antagonist, head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Norton), is a jealous, humourless man who obstructs Johnson at every turn. And yet the character is somehow more likeable than Norton’s recurring geek character, Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory. Possibly because, for all Stafford’s faults, he’s not so much of a know-it-all that he can afford to overlook Johnson’s talents.

Throughout this slice of the Sixties, discrimination is presented as natural fallacy; it is therefore it should be: that water fountain is assigned for white people, therefore black people should use their own. “I just follow the rules,” is a response Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan all hear in one guise or another, a putdown smuggled in a shrug and an empty smile. Such civil civil oppression is pervasive and hard to resist. Manners maketh a man blameless.

All three characters are distinguished by their consummate talents and irrepressible drive, without which, their fight against the status quo would have surely been scuttled. Seemingly benevolent Task Group boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) only asks Johnson’s name when he suspects she could be a spy, weeks after distinguishing herself as an excellent mathematician. The “good guys” care about Johnson so long as she’s a) a genius b) of use to the project.

Taraji P. Henson summing it on screen as Katherine G. Johnson

Thanks to the NASA setting, there’s a fair bit of math-science-space babble delivered by the cast with absolute conviction. Plus, there’s the dialogue aimed at any algebra averse laymen in the audience, which is apparently more understandable: “Look beyond the numbers, look around the numbers,” as if gravity-busting formulae is merely well camouflaged. Ever since A Beautiful Mind, the one way to spot an on-screen genius is by the flagrant misuse of surfaces in the name of mathematics. No window or tree is safe from the  invasive etchings of a Hollywood prodigy. Fortunately, Johnson isn’t genius by numbers. She’s a protagonist near impossible not to root for.

When watching Hidden Figures, one rarely doubts the future successes of Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan; their triumphant arcs barely waver. Perhaps that’s the nature of a Hollywood biopic in this vein. The movie has been made with the intention of inspiring and informing, and on those counts it surely excels. But what of the black women living in this era without the talents of Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan? Or, the black women so downtrodden by racism and sexism that their autonomy was shattered? These women are not hidden figures, because evidence of their achievements is not there to find. They were robbed of opportunity. This previously more common and depressing fate does not feature in Hidden Figures, and the film is weaker for it. As a celebratory film, it lacks the drama that the threat of failure brings, a threat which surely existed for all three women during the ’60s despite their talents.

History is set. By virtue of it happening one way and not another, it gives the impression of inevitability. Former President Obama has repeated a quote belonging to Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” This illusion—that history takes the side of the righteous— engenders complacency: the future is up for grabs and must be fought for. As a model to aspire to, Hidden Figures is ideal. As a sign of the fight to come in the Trump era and its uncertain outcome, Hidden Figures obscures the dangers of possible defeat.