This enchanting French film has both a subtitled and an English-dubbed version. Although the dubbed version features the voice talents of Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris, among others, I implore you to see the French version if you can. The insouciant quality of this film in the original French is, for me, part of its beauty and power, and I highly recommend you see that version.
I can’t really imagine this film’s subtle idioms and cultural proclivities voiced in English aimed at American audiences, with the additional problem of having to fit the dialogue into the original’s timing, rhythms and movement. I suppose I should give it a chance, as many theatres in the States showed ONLY the dubbed version, since they figured that was more suitable for kids. Le sigh. The thing is, this is not really a film for kids, unless they’re fairly mature. I’d say younger than nine, even if they’re adept at reading subtitles, is too young.
D’accord! Now that we’ve discussed that, I’m happy to review one of the best animated films I’ve seen in years. Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, adapted by screenwriter Celine Sciamma, directed and with puppet designs by Claude Barras, this film is dark and light in equal measure, funny, moving, and deeply thoughtful. The story focuses on a young boy named Icare, whose mother has nicknamed him Courgette (aka zucchini); he’s a sad lad whose mother drinks beer and screams the TV all day. One day when she threatens to beat him, he impulsively shuts the attic door between them and causes a fatal fall. Now orphaned, Icare goes into the system: A kind police officer named Raymond brings Icare/Courgette to an orphanage, and promises to visit him. In his tiny backpack, Icare carries only two mementoes of his parents: a kite with a drawing of a masked superhero on it, and an empty beer can. The kite clearly references the myth of Icarus, for whom Icare is named: his attempts to “fly” his kite, i.e. have a normal childhood, are cut short by tragedy.
The orphanage is a cheery place with compassionate staff (Rosy and Mr. Paul, both in their 20s and possibly dating, are the two main teachers), and the children all have various issues with their behavior and personalities. The central element of this story is Courgette’s relationships with the other children, all of them displaced through sad circumstances. Simon is a worldly bully who teases every new kid. He calls Courgette “potato head” and steals his kite from his cubby. But when the two are sent to the headmistress’ office for fighting, Simon learns of Courgette’s recent past and befriends him, revealing his own parents were drug addicts. Ahmed is a sweet boy of Middle Eastern descent whose father is in prison. Shy Alice’s father abused her, and she hides her face behind a long blonde forlock. Jujube is hyperactive and loves to eat. Bespectacled Beatrice waits obsessively for her mother every day, excited by every passing car. A new girl named Camille arrives, and Courgette is immediately smitten. Camille stands up to Simon’s teasing with her own witty ripostes, and is kind to the other children, gaining their trust. Simon and Courgette sneak into the office one night to look at her file and learn that her parents died in a horrible murder-suicide.
Despite portraying the children’s emotional difficulties to some extent, the film doesn’t delve into the details of their therapy or treatment. There are no counselors, no psychiatrists. But one moving, thrilling segment tenderly shows the power of retreat. Mr. Paul and Rosy pack up the kids into a van and drive them to a snowy mountain resort for a sleepover. They eat outside in the brisk sunshine, and see other kids there for skiing, who are curious about the orphans, but whose (obviously) wealthy parents rudely keep their distance. One girl gives her fancy snow goggles to Ahmed, who then gets called a thief by the girl’s mother, and cries. But the girl winks, smiles and gives the goggles back to him; Ahmed refuses to take them off. That night, as the sun goes down, colored lights blink from the cabin window, and techno dance music plays, set up by Mr. Paul, who has created a tiny discothecque in the room. The children dance with shy abandon, their personalities perfectly revealed as they work on their dance moves, and the camera pulls back so that we see the pulsing lights from the window, a small spot of heat and sound in the snowy landscape, warm and alive with color. It’s a brilliant metaphorical moment in these children’s lives, and I found it nearly heart-stopping.
Later that same night, Camille and Courgette, unable to sleep, sneak out to lie in the snow beside a frozen lake (a clear homage to 2004s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Courgette’s blue hair confirms it). He reveals to her that he knows about her parents, and then they fall silent, their easy companionship palpable. We sense that children’s connections to one another are layered and complex, and their understanding of the adult world more sophisticated than it ought to be. Moments like this elevate this film into deeper territory than most animated films about children, and yet it is still firmly anchored in their perspective.
Naturally, these kids are curious about sex and talk about it in crude but adorable terms: “the woman keeps repeating her agreement and the man’s willy explodes.” They learn that Mr. Paul and Rosy are romantically involved, and that Rosy is expecting a baby, which excites the children no end. As time passes, small visual vignettes add pensive touches: a bird nest appears in a tree outside Courgette’s window, and a fledgling family arrives in spring. Courgette writes letters to Raymond, the officer who accompanied him, illustrated with drawings that tell of his escapades with his new friends. Raymond visits occasionally and good-naturedly tolerates the children’s pranks (“they don’t like the police,” Courgette tells him matter-of-factly).
With so much treacly sentimentality and hyper-awareness of pop culture contained in animated films these days, it’s refreshing to see one that engages adults and children in an intelligent way. The animation is gorgeously done, and the direction is as masterful as any live action arthouse drama. (Note: Be sure to watch the credits! A delightful Easter Egg is contained about halfway through, and you also get to hear beautiful music by Sophie Hinger.) I suppose it might be possible to find this film sad and troubling; but because the children have rainbow-colored hair and pencil necks and hands the size of hams, we can perceive them from an artistic, fantastical distance. Because they move with stop-motion gestures, with wide eyes like glass marbles, their bodies are funny and doll-like, not flesh and blood, not vulnerable. Ma Vie de Courgette shows us the world of lost children who find themselves mirrored in one another, their fears and hopes, their anger and laughter. They teach us how to survive.