The first great age of animation was associated with comic violence, talking animals and other effects that were impossible to achieve with actors, however feudal their contracts. In front of a camera is where the dramas that reflected our lives took place, whether epic or small scale. Latterly, however, cinema has fallen under the spell of computer games and developments in CGI are blurring the dividing line between what is real and what is digital. Sensing an opportunity, animators are moving onto ground vacated by the mainstream to bring us visions of ourselves that are no less playful and visually inventive than before but deal with subjects that are more directly and intensely human.
These thoughts are inspired by My Life as a Courgette, an honest, poignant, funny exploration of childhood under pressure in the modern age. The film centres around Icare, a nine-year-old boy who goes by the pet name of the film’s title. The only child of a one-parent family, he accidentally causes the death of his alcoholic mother and is taken by Raymond, the policeman in charge of his case, to a children’s home in the country. There he encounters bullying at first, but stands up for himself and before long is accepted into this dysfunctional but quaintly idyllic society. A new girl arrives, Camille, with whom Courgette falls sweetly, abjectly in love. Her aunt (the only villain in the piece, a chavvy update of Cruella De Vil) wants to foster her for the money, and a battle of wits ensues between the children and this two-faced trollop. The ending is happy, of course, but far from rose-tinted. Not everyone gets a new home. And when the lucky ones find they have rooms of their own any pleasure on their behalf is tinged with regret. The dormitory they have left behind was a little commune, what it lacked in privacy being made up for in closeness and common cause. The good fortune we seek for ourselves always seems to involve separation. It was also a place where girls and boys had less need to be kept apart. In entering their single rooms, the two friends rehearse the great schism of puberty, with no guarantee their attachment will survive.
Swiss director Claude Barras uses the technique known as stop-motion to animate his little people, each only ten inches tall. The buildings and scenery resemble a picture book, while Raymond’s car is a box you can imagine his feet propelling. This is a child’s view of the world that connects with our innocence – not entirely lost, whatever we may feel. The horrors that have been experienced by Courgette and his friends and the behavioural issues they suffer from are sensitively dealt with, the film celebrating the group’s resilience, concern for each other and ability to adjust. Their rib-digging worldliness as well, sex a comic and subversive fascination. As for the adults, Camille’s aunt aside, their characters are sympathetic without being idealised – Raymond in particular, whose sorrow is visible in his resin face before, tenderly, we learn of its cause.
One experiences any work of art in a context which influences the view that is taken. In the current climate, I am given to wonder about the world unfolding in front of my eyes. An orphanage with fewer than ten kids; authority figures who can be trusted; outcomes that promise happiness for some, if not all: this version of life is hard to recognise. Perhaps such places exist in France, its public provision more resilient than ours, albeit at issue in the current election. In austerity Britain, with children’s services in crisis and abuse scandals mounting, such institutional kindness stretches belief. Is the film true-to-life, then, a heart-warming report from a gentler jurisdiction; is it intended to make us feel good about something most people find difficult to contemplate; or should it be seen as a political message, a call to cherish our humanity, embattled as it is on every side?
As a postscript, not unconnected with these musings, I wonder about the title. This suggests a cutesy tale of anthropomorphic vegetables, which inclined me to give the film a miss at first. It might help if the original, Ma Vie de Courgette, was translated into English without the ‘a’. Perhaps then the version issued in the United States would have been spared being called My Life as a Zucchini. But I doubt it, given that the voices have also been dubbed. Why do that? The French children bring their characters to life and sound loyal to the setting of the story, subtitles being a small price to pay for access to a different take on the world. But American audiences are assumed to want only what is familiar and easily digestible. As Donald Trump, the spokesman for that insularity, would say, or rather tweet: How sad!