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.