A timid 9-year-old boy with blue hair and eyes as big as ping-pong balls ends up in an orphanage in My Life as a Courgette (Ma Vie de Courgette), the stop-motion animated film and feature debut from Swiss-born director Claude Barras. This lovingly told and gorgeously rendered story is based on French novelist Gilles Paris’ Autobiography of a Courgette and, yes, that means that the pint-sized protagonist is nicknamed after a summer squash. Though not as dark as the book that inspired it, nor as directly critical of the French welfare state — it’s never even quite clear which country the film is set in — this tale of a shy kid who ends up with other orphaned misfits after causing the accidental death of his alcoholic mother is nonetheless not exactly a tale for all ages. That said, savvy distributors who know how to market high-end animated films to older audiences should get some decent mileage out of this Courgette.
Without a doubt the biggest coup for the film and first-time feature helmer Barras was to land French auteur Celine Sciamma as the screenwriter, since her own movies (Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lillies, all essential) and her screenwriting collaboration with Andre Techine on his recent Being 17 (also essential) have one thing in common: They are vividly realized, finger-on-the-pulse looks at the growing pains of youngsters. Though this movie is animated and she’s adapting already existing material rather than writing something from scratch, it’s impossible not to recognize her delicately observant touch, from the gawky humor so typical of juvenility to the way in which children on the brink of adulthood learn in fits and starts, as if early adolescence were a testing ground for adult behavior.
Given that his real name is Icare (i.e., Icarus) but he’s not the kind to proudly ignore useful warnings about flying too close to the sun, it’s probably a good thing Courgette (voice of Gaspard Schlatter) can fall back on his much more innocent-sounding nickname. That said, even that name comes with some emotional baggage. After Courgette has accidentally caused the death of his alcoholic mother, he tells a kind, mustachioed policeman, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), that he wants to be called Courgette since it’s one of the very few things that he’s got left that his mother gave him. (In an economical yet very effective masterstroke, one of the others is an empty beer can he’s taken with him.)
The bulk of this slender, 66-minute film is set at an orphanage where Courgette is dropped off by the kind Raymond and where he hesitantly gets to know his peers. They include the big-mouthed leader, Simon (Paulin Jaccoud); the quiet, dinosaur-loving Ahmed (Elliot Sanchez); the shy Alice (Estelle Hennard), always hiding behind her hair, and the football-loving tough girl Camille (Sixtine Murat), who says what she thinks.
Their adventures at the orphanage and on a trip to the mountains where they get to play in the snow are the stuff of countless children’s tales. What sets Courgette apart is the constant attention to how each incident and experience influences and builds character, which is how these children can slowly ease themselves into their future grown-up selves. Thus, Raymond’s warmth and kindness toward Courgette re-establishes his faith in adults, while the dynamic between Simon and Courgette goes from defensively testy — Simon insists on calling him “Potato” — to something more complex and real. The subplot involving the protagonist’s growing feelings for Camille could have used a bit more work, however, especially given where they’ll finally end up as the pic draws to a close. That said, a sequence in which the two have a heart-to-heart under a starry sky is one of the feature’s highlights, even if their dialogue sounds more adult-like than their respective 9 and 10 years of age (the fact they’ve gone through a lot before becoming orphans might have something to do with that).
Clearly, Courgette either sinks or soars based on how involved viewers will become in the story. Given that there’s a lot of offscreen hurt for many of the preteen characters but that their faces are made of plasticine, what Barras has achieved here is nothing short of a miracle. The figures all have large heads with equally large eyes — they look like ping-pong balls with irises glued on — ensuring that even a medium shot can be very expressive and convey a lot of emotion. To further direct initial attention to the faces, the characters have tiny, wiry bodies that are nattily dressed, again with a great eye for detail.
Barras, credited with the graphic design, and art director Ludovic Chemarin’s sets are all painstakingly made, uncluttered but with carefully selected characteristics to make sure they feel properly lived in. Their colors go from weathered tones to increasingly sunny hues as the story progresses and the locations change and they benefit immensely from the gorgeous, drama-enhancing lighting from cinematographer David Toutevoix.
If there’s one thing that Barras should pay more attention to when he goes on to make his next feature, it’s that for the moment, the overall look and mise-en-scene never quite scream “cinema,” as My Life as a Courgette retains an intimate register that would work just as well on home-format screens. But to follow in the footsteps of the orphans, who use a weather board to suggest what mood they are in on any given day by selecting a meteorological condition (clear, cloudy, thunderstorms …), this critic would definitely rate this film “sunny” for the soul.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: Rita Productions, Blue Spirit Productions, Gebeka Films, KNM
Voice cast: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz, Raul Ribera, Estelle Hennard, Elliot Sanchez, Lou Wick, Brigitte Rosset, Monica Budde, Adrien Barazzone, Veronique Montel
Director: Claude Barras
Screenplay: Celine Sciamma, Germano Zullo, Claude Barras, Morgan Navarro, based on the book Autobiography of a Courgette by Gilles Paris
Producers: Max Karli, Pauline Gygax, Armelle Glorennec, Eric Jacquot, Marc Bonny
Executive producer: Patrick David
Director of photography: David Toutevoix
Art director: Ludovic Chemarin
Editor: Valentin Rotelli
Music: Sophie Hunger
Sales: Indie Sales
Not rated, 66 minutes