It is safe to say this is the best stop-motion since Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Originally an auto-biographical account of Gilles Paris’ experience in an orphanage (“Autobiographie d’une Courgette), we follow the string of events that happen to 9-year-old Icare, or rather Courgette as he prefers to be known, after what should be any child’s worst nightmare.
The very fact this film was in the form of stop motion intensified the magic of the story. Every emotional scene is heightened by the intricate workmanship going into the children’s interactions amongst themselves or with adults. This is an area My Life as a Courgette excels in, as the film recognises children’s receptiveness and perceptivity. Adult’s words and actions greatly impact children, becoming all the more important for them to understand how deeply these orphans are traumatised and just how they are dealing with this.
Authority figures such as the policeman or the social workers are shown in their best light, and is somewhat a tribute to the system. They are fully understanding of the children’s needs, such as Icare’s need to be called “Courgette” as his late mother nicknamed him. They do not underestimate their intelligence and give them a secure sense of home and family within the orphanage.
During a skiing trip organised by the orphanage, Camille (another of the home’s residents) and Courgette share a meaningful evening of confessed deep thoughts under the stars, as Courgette realises that now his alcoholic mother is dead, he is relieved his future will never involve drinking large amounts of beer with her as he always imagined. The orphanage has opened up doors and windows of happiness and possibility he never knew existed.
On the same trip, little Ahmed approaches a girl to compliment her red skiing goggles. The girl’s mother rushes over, immediately assuming Ahmed is a thief and demands where his parents are, to which he replies he doesn’t know. Aggressively shooing him away, she humiliates him by calling him a liar. Ahmed’s reaction is heart-breaking, he did not deserve to be shouted at, even less-so to be falsely accused of lying or stealing. If director Claude Barras and screenplay writer Céline Sciamma wanted to get the audiences tear ducts working, this scene did a brilliant job of doing so.
One of the best things about the film is the script, made up of small details that make the stop motion characters intensely realistic. A few things couldn’t help getting lost in translation, such as one child’s confusion of the words “préliminaires” and “préparatifs” in an adorable attempt to show off his knowledge about grown-ups and sex, but this is understandably imperceptible to anyone who doesn’t speak French. The discussions these children have reflect, at least for characters Simon, Courgette and Camille, the gift of insight, intuition and understanding.
A brilliant way the orphanage came up with helping the children communicate was to give them a communal weatherboard, or “La Météo des Enfants”. This was genius in its simplicity, as the moods ranged from stormy to sunny, being a good meter for each child to easily share what mood they are in. One’s state of mind can be difficult to articulate for anyone, let alone for young, traumatised children.
Each of these children have a huge amount of character, much to do with their individual background stories. We are told the reasons of their being in the orphanage, and suddenly the home becomes a microcosm of society’s problems today.
Sciamma mentioned being aware of the political dimension of My Life as a Courgette by portraying the palette of dysfunctional families that exist all around us. The character of Simon is particularly well done, his cliché hard exterior is justified by his acute take on reality. “We’re all the same” he reassures Courgette, “there’s no one left to love us”.
When Courgette and Camille spend a weekend at the Policeman’s home, they cannot help but notice the framed photo of a child and wonder out loud where he is. In a simple and honest manner, the Policeman explains that “sometimes, it’s the kids who leave the parents”. Then showing Camille and Courgette around, they marvel at his collection of succulents and plants. He tells the children that he likes to grow things, which I saw as a wonderful metaphor for his ability to nurture and protect.
The compact runtime of 70 minutes was a very smart move. Although obviously stop motions are painstakingly difficult and costly to make, which can explain the concise runtime, the story didn’t feel too long or too short, and immediately felt rewatchable for all the right reasons. Going into the cinema with extremely mild expectations, I welcomed the numerous ways in which this film touched me, left in utter amazement at the sheer perfection of this masterpiece.