One of the unequivocal delights of this year’s 69th Cannes Film Festival was discovering director Claude Barras‘ “My Life as a Courgette,” a 66-minute stop-motion animation treat. The film, depicting a few months in the life of an orphan named Courgette who still feels responsible for the death of his alcoholic mother cuts to the heart in the most non-manipulative kind of way. It’s a keeper.
What else but first love can lift you back up and drown your sorrows away. That’s what happens to Courgette, which actually is French for zucchini, when a 10 year-old girl by the name of Camille arrives at his orphanage by court order. His deeply bruised heart melts, and so will yours. Trouble comes in the form of Courgette’s hissy-fit aunt, who is trying to get custody, much to the dismay of her niece. That’s when the fun starts, and the kids at the orphanage decide to take matters in their own hands.
The titular’s boy’s real name is Icare, but he wants to be called by the nickname his mother gave him. The foster home he lives in is one that will likely feel familiar to cinephiles as it includes many of the stereotypical tropes that would appear in such milieus. Yet, it also feels fresh because the visuals, Barras’ second to none graphic design, and art director Ludovic Chemarin‘s sets have immaculate attention to detail, are sumptuous and feel beautifully homegrown.
Premiering as part of Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the tough subject matter doesn’t detract from the fact that the picture and its poignant elements make for an unadorned delight. Adapted from a young adult novel by French screenwriter Celine Sciamma (“Tomboy,” “Girlhood”), who has been on a roll lately tackling darkly-themed coming of age dramas, “My Life As a Courgette” seems to be sprung from the deepest tanks of the creative mind.
Although this isn’t necessarily new territory for Sciamma, she still has to devise a screenplay that, unlike her previous efforts, could be seen by both kiddies and adults. Tricky business, which sometimes makes the film shift gears a little too abruptly.
The themes constructed by Barras and Sciamma are in fact very serious, but that shouldn’t stop kids from seeing it. In the same way as “Bambi” dealt with the loss of a parent, this film deals with tragedy in the most universal but touching of ways. A particularly well-realized moment happens when Camille and Courgette ponder their fates as the starry night sky, beautifully imagined by its creators, touches down on them. The figures that Barras creates have large heads, equally large eyes, and tiny bodies. This enhances the viewer’s attention to their expressive eyes, which are heavily used to dictate the emotional state of the orphans. It’s a well-thought out schema that pays off for the emotional response one might have to the characters’ fates.
What one takes away from “My Life As a Courgette” might be a casually simple and forward affair, but a deeper, more considered look at Barras’ moving tale reveals an emotional resonance and non-saccharine uplift that is mostly rare in today’s animation world. Consider it a diamond in the rough. [B+]