Focus on Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette)

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette)

“We are all alike; there’s no one left to love us.” The Les Fontaines orphanage is home to seven ten-year-old children: the endearing protagonists in Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras’ stunning My Life as a Courgette [+], an animated feature debut, outstanding thanks to both its subject matter and its approach to it, which was unveiled in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 69th Cannes Film Festival.

The quiet Courgette, whose real name is Icarus, has never met his father and sets off for Les Fontaines, his kite under his arm, following his alcoholic mother’s accidental death. In the orphanage, which is sequestered away from the city, he meets and learns about each of his partners in misfortune. Simon’s parents are constantly on drugs, Ahmed’s father is in prison after holding up a service station, Jujube’s mother has reached a very advanced stage of chronic-depressive delirium, while Bea’s mum has been deported to Africa, and Alice still has nightmares about the “disgusting things” her father did. As for the pretty Camille, under whose charm Courgette instantly falls, she was present as her father killed her mother, before taking his own life, and “her eyes show that she saw it all”.

As such, the short lives of these seven children are summed up by their precocious encounter with the world’s cruelty, meaning that it would have been easy for them to be created as part of the darkest vein of cinematic social realism. However, it’s a much different path, both softer and brighter, along which director Barras chose to walk with Céline Sciamma (proving the aptness of her writing following the trio of films about adolescence she worked on as a director: Water Lilies [+], Tomboy [+] and Girlhood [+]), as they adapted Gilles Paris’ novel Autobiography of a Courgette. Contrary to the popular paradigm of portraying orphanages as places of aggravated abuse, as in Oliver Twist, Les Fontaines is a haven of peace, conducive to reconstruction, tolerance and friendship. This positive approach to the darkness of the past definitely does not make light of those events, as the wounds, which rocked these children to their core, are still present and bubble up to the surface without taking centre stage, mainly being expressed through silences and glances. As such, the film has avoided falling into the trap of over-dramatisation, skilfully dealing with topics with hard-hitting consequences (emotional emptiness, foster families, custodial rights, adoption, etc) and even more tactfully showing the simplicity of its poetic stance, which is fed by tender empathy and benevolent humour.

My Life as a Courgette is a calm representation with strong emotional potential thanks to its astounding mastery of stop-motion animation and the fact it toys marvellously with the contrast between these highly stylised “character-marionettes” and the naturalism of the dialogues and voices. Broken up into sequence shots, the film explores intimate topics far removed from those that have reigned supreme in contemporary animated films, which are based on speed and the spectacular. In the big, round eyes of Courgette and his friends, you can see their awareness of all the bitter violence in the world mingle with the regenerative virtues of friendship as well as the image of a better future, like a mirror for the viewers, who were all children at one stage of their lives.

Produced by Swiss outfit Rita Productions and France’s Blue Spirit Production, Gebeka Films and KNM, My Life as a Courgette is sold internationally by Indie Sales.

By Fabien Lemercier