Children’s connections to one another are layered and complex, and their understanding of the adult world more sophisticated than we usually allow.
Ma vie de Courgette (Life as a Zucchini), adapted by Celine Sciamma from a novel by Gilles Paris; directed and with puppet designs by Claude Barras. Screening on March 15 at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Peg Aloi
Hats off to the Kendall for showing both the English language (dubbed) and French subtitled version of this film. As of this writing, they are still showing the subtitled version. I found it interesting that the matinee showings were dubbed, and the evening showings were subtitled, suggesting the dubbed version might be appropriate for children. If you’re the kind of adult who wishes to bring their charges to a foreign subtitled film, I’d recommend your kids be at least nine years old, as this film does deal with some mature subject matter.
Dubbing animated films is nothing new (most of us who are Miyazaki fans have seen dubbed, not subtitled, versions of Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away). I haven’t seen the dubbed version of My Life as a Zucchini and don’t really have much desire to, even though it boasts the voice talents of Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. But it’s virtually impossible to retain the cultural subtleties of the original version of a foreign film when adapting it for an American audience, and dubbing of animation presents the additional problem of having to fit the dialogue into the original’s timing, rhythms, and movement. The insouciant quality of this film in the original French is, for me, part of its beauty and power, and I highly recommend you see the French version.
Okay, now that we’ve covered that, here’s why Ma Vie de Courgette is one of the best animated films I’ve seen in years. Based on a novel by Gilles Paris, adapted by screenwriter Celine Sciamma, directed and with puppet designs by Claude Barras, this film is dark and light in equal measure, funny, moving, and deeply thoughtful. The basic story: young Icare, whose mother has nicknamed him Courgette (aka zucchini), is a sad lad whose mom drinks too much beer and yells at the TV. One day when she threatens to beat him, he impulsively shuts the attic door between them and causes a fatal fall. Now orphaned, Icare goes into the system: A kindly police officer named Raymond brings Icare/Courgette to an orphanage, and promises to visit him. In his tiny backpack he has two mementoes of his parents: a kite with a drawing of a masked superhero on it, and an empty beer can.
The orphanage is unexpectedly pleasant; the staff are compassionate. The central element of this story is Courgette’s relationships with the other children, all of them displaced through sad circumstances. Simon is a worldly bully who teases every new kid who comes along. He calls Courgette “potato head” and steals his kite from his cubby: When the two are sent to the headmistress’ office for fighting, Simon hears of Courgette’s recent past and befriends him, revealing his own parents were drug addicts. Ahmed is a sweet boy of Middle Eastern descent whose father is in prison. Shy Alice’s father abused her, and she hides behind a long blonde forelock. Jujube is hyperactive and loves food. Bespectacled Beatrice waits for her mother every day, excited by every passing car. A new girl named Camille arrives, and Courgette is smitten. Camille stands up to Simon’s teasing with her own joking remarks, and shows gentleness to the other children, who immediately trust her. Simon and Courgette sneak into the office one night to look at her file and learn that her parents were killed in a horrific murder-suicide.
The film doesn’t go into the more realistic details of how these children heal and adapt: there are no counselors, no psychiatrists. But one delightful scene tenderly shows the power of play. Mr. Paul and Rosy pack up the kids into a van and drive them to a snowy mountain retreat. They eat outside in the brisk sunshine, and see other kids there for skiing, who are curious about the orphans, but whose wealthy parents are rude and keep their distance. One girl gives her fancy snow goggles to Ahmed, who gets called a thief by the girl’s mother, and cries. But the girl winks and smiles and gives the goggles back to him; Ahmed won’t take them off. That night as the sun goes down, colored lights blink from the cabin window, and techno dance music is blaring, set up by Mr. Paul who has created a tiny discotheque in the room. The children dance with shy abandon, their personalities perfectly revealed as they work on their dance moves, and the camera pulls back so that we see the pulsing lights from the window, a small spot of heat and sound in the snowy landscape, warm and alive with color.
Later that night, Camille and Courgette, unable to sleep, sneak out to lie in the snow beside a frozen lake (perhaps an homage to The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). He reveals to her that he knows about her parents, and then they fall silent, their companionship palpable. We sense that children’s connections to one another are layered and complex, and their understanding of the adult world more sophisticated than we usually allow.
The kids are curious about sex and talk about it in crude but adorable terms: “the woman keeps repeating her agreement and the man’s willy explodes.” They learn their two teachers, Mr. Paul and Rosy, are romantically involved and that Rosy is expecting a baby, which excites the children no end. Small visual vignettes add artful, pensive touches: a bird nest is built in a tree outside Courgette’s window and a fledging family arrives in spring. Courgette writes letters to Raymond illustrated with drawings that tell of his escapades with his new friends. Raymond visits occasionally and good-naturedly tolerates the children’s pranks (“they don’t like the police,” Courgette tells him matter-of-factly).
With so much treacly sentimentality contained in animated films these days, it’s refreshing to see one that engages adults and children in a sensitive, intelligent way. The animation is beautifully done, and the direction is as artful as any live action arthouse drama. But because the children have blue hair and pencil necks and hands the size of hams, we perceive them from an artistic, fantastical distance. Because they move with stop-motion gestures, with wide eyes like glass marbles, their bodies are funny and doll-like, not flesh and blood, not vulnerable. Ma Vie de Courgette shows us the world of lost children who find themselves mirrored in one another, their fears and hopes, their anger and laughter.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online.