Cannes Hidden Gem: Stop-Motion 'My Life as a Courgette' Is Both Whimsical and Serious
French director Claude Barras makes his feature debut with an animated look at a group of particularly resourceful orphans coping with neglect.
Less than a year after Charlie Kaufman showed the cinema world — to Oscar-nominated effect — how stop-motion animation could deal with issues such as depression and anxiety, a title bowing in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight has also used the technique to movingly depict somewhat delicate subject matters.
My Life as a Courgette, which might have the festival's most curious film title, tells the story of a nine-year-old boy — nicknamed "My Zucchini" by his alcoholic mother — who is orphaned following her sudden death and joins a foster home full of other children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
Director Claude Barras admits that the subject of child abuse is a "delicate situation" for an animated film, his first feature and based on the novel by Gilles Paris. Not that he hasn’t tackled tricky issues before; his co-directed short Ice Floe centers around a girl suffering from bulimia.
"I started with the premise that, as children, we have all known, among our friends or in our families, children who were victims of ill-treatment or abuse," he says. But while the story starts in darkness, Barras claims the resilience of the characters helps it "soar toward the light."
He adds, "Beyond being an homage to these shattered childhoods, to courage, resiliency and friendship, I hope that this movie will allow people who are faced with such problems to speak about them openly."
Barras chose nonprofessional child actors to voice the various parts, having them act out their roles as well. "That doubled the workload — thus time and budget! — for the recording process," he says. "And all of this took place before we had even begun building the first piece of scenery or even the first puppet."
As for the puppets, Barras turned to the style of Tintin creator Herge, who believed that the simpler the face, the easier for readers to project their own feelings and identify with the character. Each puppet was about 10 inches high, handcrafted using latex, silicone, resin and fabric, and then wrapped around an articulated skeleton.
"The key to the film is the characters’ eyes," says Barras, "which are wide open onto the world and encapsulate their emotion and empathy."
Despite the "exhausting and trying" workload involved in making a stop-motion feature, he says the experience has him hooked, and he’d prefer to keep going than return to shorts.
"The most difficult part was when everything wrapped up," he says. "The silence and the impression of abandonment and withdrawal is much deeper and disturbing after 36 months of leading 80 collaborators than after only two months working with a team of eight people."