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.

What Do Women Want and Why Won’t They Tell Us?

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Ever since Eve pointed at a divine red delicious and Adam snaffled the apple for himself, relations have been frosty between men and women. Innumerable sleepless nights have been given over to wondering, “Women: what do they want and how can we give it to them?” Of all the things to have been spawned from a single rib, women are surely the hardest to please.

Turns out, different women want different things. This may seem obvious now, but just like the discovery of gravity by Isaac Newton and electricity by Benjamin Franklin, acquiring groundbreaking knowledge about the fairer sex was a process as painful as childbirth (probably).

The 2000 release of Mel Gibson rom-com What Women Want marked the dawn of a new era in inter-gender relations. Forget Simone De Beauvoir, throw out your Mary Wollstonecraft. The entertainingly frothy What Women Want is the foundation of female liberation in the 21st century, and, naturally, it’s all thanks to a man who’s granted the gift of hearing women’s thoughts.

The film opens with an ex-wife gushing over her former spouse as the zenith of masculinity. According to the misty-eyed divorcee, he’s “a man’s man”, which sounds like a euphemism akin to “batting for the other team,” but it’s not. Whoever this guy is, he’s the opposite of gay. He’s straight and he likes his women like he likes his coffee: by the bag-full, instant, etcetera, etcetera.

Nick Marshall is the man, myth and legend. His secretary (Sarah Paulson) warns an incoming colleague that Marshall is the “least politically correct guy.” Enter Mel Gibson as Marshall, an Ad Man in Chicago whose recurring creative motif is to depict a bikinied lady holding whichever product his company is trying to sell. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

As Marshall winks at hotties and shuns the notties, his ex-wife fills in the blank of his past. Marshall’s mother was a showgirl in Vegas, and as a result he grew up in the dressing rooms abundant with glamorous beauties, all of whom became Marshall’s bosom buddies. This charmingly presented back-story is supposed to account for Marshall’s behavior, though not all chauvinists were raised in showgirls’ dressing rooms: some merely walk through them without permission in later life.

Unlike 50s pop songs about young girls developing into women and aging well, What Women Wants has aged well, and is rather perky for a rom-com that’s 17-years-old. This is because Marshall’s dinosaur character is sadly not extinct, and he makes for a compelling anti-hero at the start of the film. He’s a rich bad-dad bachelor, whose frequent wiggling of sunglasses, deep voice, and over-the-top facial expressions count as charisma. Marshall is a man who believes his own myth, and alas, his utter self- conviction means that others buy into it too, men and women alike. Annoying it may be, but it’s also believable.

After the pride comes the fall. Dressed in all black like a strutting sexist raven,  Marshall crows to everyone at the office about his upcoming promotion. But when he meets with Dan Wanamaker (Alan Alda), the company CEO, Marshall learns that the Creative Director role he covets has been given to somebody else, and to add insult to injury, she’s only a woman: Darcy McGuire (Helen Hunt).

Things take a humorous turn when Marshall goes home to lick his wounds and gets absolutely blotto. Glugging merlot, he declares “There’s too much oestrogen on TV these days. The cure is Frank.” Frank isn’t the street name for testosterone, it’s what Marshall calls kindred spirit Frank Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes fills the apartment, and Marshall proceeds to give a genuinely impressive drunken dance routine for the benefit of nobody but his shadow.

The big band music of Sinatra and his peers soundtracks the entirety of What Women Want. Not only are the songs catchy and light, but they also reveal the kind of intoxicating nostalgia that Marshall holds as a credo; a longing for the days gone-by when women were broads, and everything was in black-and-white (a mindset to which Mel Gibson might possibly relate). Having been tasked by McGuire to develop an advertising campaign for women, Marshall grapples with both modernity and various products made for women, including stockings, nail varnish, bath beads, and a wonderbra. He samples them all at once in a drunken rite of passage.

In what is essentially an inverse of the glass ceiling phenomenon, Marshall slips on the female-friendly bath beads scattered on the floor, dragging the hairdryer into the bath, having just uttered, moments before, the magic words: “What Do Women Want?” Perhaps his sudden demise, one might venture.

When he wakes up frazzled the next day, somehow still alive, Marshall has acquired an incredible ability/curse: he can hear the inner-most thoughts of women, and also, French poodles (gentle xenophobia or sexism—you decide!)

The viewer hears what only Marshall can hear, and delights in his maddening isolation. Director Nancy Meyers, whose credits include Something’s Got To Give and, most recently, The Intern, does a good job of making sure the various streams of consciousness don’t overwhelm each scene. The script is funny for the most part, and the majority of the film’s best lines come from the inner-thoughts of random women wandering past Marshall, biting their tongue but articulating their scorn. It’s effective and entertaining, owing something of its flavour to the subtitled scenes of Annie Hall.

Marshall is taken aback by how many women think he’s a low-life chauvinist, bringing to mind a line from The Office: “How can I hate women, my Mum was one?” For the first time in his life he is forced to pay attention to his female colleagues’ situations. Among the plethora of problems is his secretary’s feeling undervalued (she long-distance calls her Israeli boyfriend from the office as revenge) and a mousey administrative assistant who internally toys with the idea of suicide.

Hearing about the woes of women is too much for Marshall and he seeks to re-electrocute himself back to normality. When this doesn’t work he pays a visit to his old marriage counsellor, played by Bette Midler. Initially sceptical, she enthuses over his new ability: “Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars and you speak Venusian,”basically making him a high-level Scientologist without paying full fees. The counsellor continues: “Freud went to his grave asking himself ‘What do women want?'” This is something of poetic licence on the part of Josh Goldsmith’s script; Freud’s last question was more likely, “Where can I score some coke?” Still, it’s an amusing shrink scene.

Enlightened to the scope of his powers, Marshall becomes a dirty thought perve, spying on all the ladies’ thoughts to his own advantage. He manipulates his estranged daughter into liking him, women into sleeping with him, and his boss into admiring his ideas; in fact, he swipes McGuire’s ideas from the cusp of her synapses, abusing her understandable hesitancy in the male-dominated advertising industry.

What Women Wants certainly has its blind spots. There is one person of colour with a speaking line, and she’s hyper-sexualised, so the film’s more about what white women supposedly want, and middle class ones at that. Incredibly, in this regard, What Women Want makes Mad Men look like an example of positive discrimination in action.

Then again, there are a few PC delights buried within; not least Mel Gibson saying “I’m gay,” like a real man’s man, and another quick moment where he thanks his secretary’s Jewish boyfriend for the gift of a Yarmulke. Gibson treats aside, the film peddles a blatant untruth about women that shouldn’t be tolerated in the 21st century; whenever a woman kisses Marshall, the woman kicks up one leg like a horse that’s just been fed a sugar cube. When will the world be free of this cinematic cliché?

The overall message of What Women Want is in some ways a little depressing. After all, it takes an extraordinary, fictional power in order for one idiot man to overcome his sexism and gain some empathy. In this way, there’s a Christmas Carol element to What Women Want, though instead of cooking a big turkey for the women of the world, Marshall settles on dolling out some respect instead. The film heads towards an ending that is both progressive yet dissatisfying, perhaps an appropriate parallel with the achievements of the feminist movement. Is this as good as it gets? Let’s hope not.

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.

A Monster Calls

Illustrator Andreu Zaragoza’s Monster

 

Waking up from a nightmare doesn’t always bring relief. For 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the protagonist of A Monster Calls, it leads only to disheartening reality: his mother is bedridden with cancer, his grandmother doesn’t understand him, and his once-in-a-bluemoon father is flakier than dandruff. School is no solace either. Bullies lurk in the yard to taunt and torment him, the withered cherry atop this cake of British-based doldrum.

Conor’s helplessness reverberates in his dreams. Night after night, he is subjected to snatched images of a graveyard collapsing into a sinkhole. As the tombstone-tipped earth recedes into the black expanse, Connor holds onto somebody’s hand – you don’t have to be Freud to guess whose – but is unable to pull the person to safety. And then he wakes up.

How long Conor has been stuck in this cycle of dreary days and disturbing nights is unclear. Too long. But in this adaption of Patrick Ness’ YA novel of the same name, the screenplay also written by Ness, the appearance of the titular monster brings the promise of change.

Monsters aren’t renowned for their punctuality, yet this one only appears when the clock strikes seven minutes past twelve. Borne from the burgeoning Yew tree that lies in the graveyard, (the one from Conor’s dreams, the one visible from Conor’s bedroom) this branch laden creature emerges. Leaving devastation in its wake, the monster tears off the bedroom wall in order to confront Conor.

What of the monster’s motivations? Does it wish to whittle the boy’s bones into an ossified loaf? Not quite. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster demands that Conor listen very carefully to three stories. Again, not the usual remit of monsters, though that entirely depends on the kind of parties you frequent.

With bark worse than its bite, (to say nothing of Neeson’s wooden acting…), the talking tree never really frightens. As a result, director J. A. Bayona squanders a potential source of tension. Even Conor doesn’t seem particularly scared of the monster’s skyscraper presence. Yes, the film has been made for a young audience (12+), but for all its bluster, the monster is tame when compared to, say, the ‘Faun’ of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Although Pan’s Labrynith is more graphic than A Monster Calls, and is aimed at an older audience (15+), the Faun’s fear inducing aura does not stem from the film’s violence. Instead, the faun’s subtle mystery derives from Del Toro’s meticulously constructed fairytale landscape – something that’s not quite there when watching A Monster Calls.

Is this arboreal life or is it just fantasy? It’s not made clear if the Yew tree creature comes forth when bidden by Conor, if it is an uninvited figment of imagination, or if the creature actually exists but is invisible to all but one. The artistically inclined Conor has problems distinguishing between real life and his imagination, but so does the audience. Though this makes for a cinematic sleight of hand on a number of occasions, the inconsistent grounding of the monster prevents the viewer from investing in the monster’s relationship with Conor. The ambiguity feels like a trick that makes the monster seems functional.

That said, the monster’s three tales provide a solid backbone to the film. As the monster narrates, Conor listens, and the screen turns canvas for wonderful illustration. Fairytale archetypes of handsome princes and wicked stepmothers are laid out in lush, swirling colors, only to reconfigure according to the back and forth of Conor’s questions and the monster’s revisions. A Monster Calls displays genuine reverence for storytelling, and holds up art as an exercise in both avoiding the hardships of life and facing them through displacement.

For, away from the fairytales, Conor must confront his mother’s deterioration and imagine his future without her. His journey through the expected emotional states – denial, fear, anger – is impressively portrayed by MacDougall, and his changes are reflected in his attitude toward the monster; at first he hides from it whereas later he seeks it. Though the monster’s origins are confusing, Conor’s reactions evolve authentically.

In the monster’s three tales, people are complex: the handsome princes commit unpunished crimes and the wicked stepmothers aren’t so wicked after all. It’s a shame then that the characters populating Conor’s real life are rather reductive. His bullies are just horrible people. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) remains a fusty, stiff upperlipped adult. Fortunately, Conor’s relationship with his mother (Felicity Jones) is rich and intricate. For all the commentary on storytelling, their fate is what makes you care.

As the monster declares at the beginning of the film, this story concerns a boy, “too old to be a kid but too young to be a man.” The appropriate audience for this film is found within similarly specific parameters. Too grave for those yet to reach their teenage years but too childish for those above the age of fifteen. But, unbeknownst to some Hollywood producers, stories come in many shapes and sizes, and audience members, too. Some people will try this film out for size and find it just right.