When people tell me they believe the quality of films are in decline, I like to remind them that we’re currently in a Golden Age for animation. Not just the consistent powerhouses of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, but also smaller studios from all around the world, are investing in carefully considered, thoughtful stories with absorbing narratives that just so happen to be animated. It’s incredibly lucky for all of us that as animation has moved into three dimensions, it has also moved closer to a multidimensional approach to characterisation and the perplexities of the wider world – as so far most inane comic book blockbusters have failed to do. A shortlist of brilliance, from this decade alone: Toy Story 3, Frozen, Despicable Me, Anomalisa, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince, Moana, Zootropolis, Your Name…
Add to that list The Red Turtle, which I raved about last week, and the alternately adorable and harrowing My Life as a Courgette, which I’ll rave about now.
I haven’t seen a film quite so tonally audacious as this one for a very long time. There are moments with the sweetness and innocence of licking a lollipop in summer; there are other moments with the bitter and undeserved cruelty of finding you’ve dropped it. It’s a tale with an unsettling synopsis: a 9 year-old boy, Icare, nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother, finds himself, due to a very dark twist of fate, landed in an orphanage with a group of kids who have equally turbulent pasts. Drug addiction, murder, sex abuse, and the deportation of immigrant relatives are just some of the issues these little – tragically little – human beings have had to face. One heartbreaking recurring moment, for example: a girl runs onto the orphanage’s porch whenever she hears a car’s engine, calling out ‘mum!’ We know, of course, her mum will never come.
What’s amazing is that these serious issues are never overplayed for easy, sentimental tears; nor do they ever threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the slight, 66-minute film, which in total is an uplifting experience. Scenes of a ski resort trip, a disco, a Halloween party, and many more are infused with such joy that I can only attribute them to a supreme empathy shown by the filmmakers in their depiction of childhood. Perhaps it’s the especially fractious nature of the world at this time that causes me to be so moved by these scenes of communal, shared enjoyment; perhaps it’s more simply a nostalgia for childhood days of yore, an emotion that I’m normally suspicious of, but not in the case of this film. It’s hard to be suspicious when you’re laughing your socks off, at the innocent ways in which these kids discuss the intricacies of sex. And when Courgette discovers love for the first time, it’s not only impossibly sweet, it’s also believably life-altering.
This film is both bitter and sweet to its core, an oxymoron that plays out in the technical accomplishment of the animation itself – a stop-motion universe of just about recognisably human figures who have exaggerated, sickly pale faces, as unnerving as a clown’s, yet with wide open eyes inviting empathy, and overt primary colours (garish dashes of blue, yellow, and red) shading their hair and the shadows around their eyes. It’s a striking palette that serves the story, even as it resists beauty in a way the Pixar and Studio Ghibli aesthetics, for instance, certainly don’t.
The beauty instead comes from the script, by the terrific Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17), from a novel by Gilles Paris, which comprehends a child’s perspective so acutely, and with a warmth that’s impossible to resist. And of course credit is due to first-time Swiss director Claude Barras, most certainly a talent to watch, who so ably deals with the book’s, and Sciamma’s, sharp tonal shifts.
The greatest testament I can give to this rich film is this: despite everything the kids go through, it really makes you long to be a part of Icare’s life as a Courgette.