Last night, I left the Curzon in Bloomsbury in awe of Claude Barras and his team of animators. I had just watched Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as Courgette), a film which tells the sober story of a group of abused and abandoned children, brought to life through the magic of stop-motion animation.
Our protagonist is Icare (Gaspard Schlatter), a timid 9 year old with blue hair and big eyes, who prefers to be called Courgette. The young boy soon becomes involved in a terrible accident and we follow his move to a children’s home, where he meets fellow abandoned kids, each with their own tragic backstories, which range from parental alcoholism and drug addiction to varying levels of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
It’s clear that Barras has used this film (and in particular the medium of this film) to play with oppositions, exploring and manipulating contrasting themes until they are shown to have more in common than what divides them. Dark stories are told with bright, primary colours – clay characters and settings made from lively reds, blues and yellows. This introduces the parallels which are repeatedly drawn between our preconceived ideas about the state of adulthood and the state of childhood, as well as (and linked to) the exploration of the relationship between the ugliness of trauma and the beauty of the banal.
In particular, the film reminded me of a clip I had seen recently of an interview with Stephen King, illustrated beautifully by Blank on Blank (below). In this discussion, King explores objects and settings which are typically associated with childhood, and draws a line between them and the contents of his fictional works of horror and the supernatural (think of clowns, young children, playgrounds, children’s homes, dolls, the circus… and ask yourself in which films you have seen these settings and objects…).
Early in the clip, King simultaneously highlights and disputes the constructed differences between adulthood and childhood, as he describes passing a young girl sitting at the end of the road, talking to herself and drawing in the dirt with a stick. “Well if I did that,” he laughs “somebody would come along and say look, there’s a grown man sitting in the dirt, talking to himself and playing with a stick…”. In this way, we see the every day acts of childhood become markedly sinister when undertaken in adulthood. But what happens when the reverse occurs – and children are confronted with issues considered inappropriate for their level of maturity?
Ma Vie de Courgette does much to question the boundaries and structures that society has constructed around our perceived notions of childhood, adulthood, and everything in between. The children we meet have experienced trauma beyond which most adults could begin to comprehend and through them (and their saucer-like eyes) we are presented with questions about the fundamentals of human existence: growing up, developing an identity, discovering love, dealing with hate, and understanding bereavement.
Within the theme of self-identity and discovery, for example, even Courgette’s name itself is significant in that, although it appears absurd at first hearing, when explored it becomes apparent that the name is just as artificial as any we have learned to be ‘normal’. This is highlighted within the following dialogue:
Raymond: Your mother is gone, Icare.
Courgette: My name is COURGETTE!
Raymond: Courgette. Did your mother give you that name?
Okay. I’m Raymond.
Courgette: Did your mother give you that name?
Barras is by no means the first to explore more serious themes through the use of a medium which is more traditionally associated with children’s genres. NBC and Dan Harmen’s popular series, Community, for example, does something similar in its 2010 holiday special Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas. Community is no stranger to playing with genre in this way (see other episodes Epidermiology, Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, etc.), but this episode is significant in that the clay world of stop-motion animation is representative of the media landscape of Abed’s childhood, and the programme uses this to explore this formative period and the effect it may have had upon the character that Adult has in adult life. By subverting the genre of children’s entertainment, both Harmen and Barras are reminding their audience not only that all adults were, of course, once children, but also that personal growth is not necessarily linear.
Growth itself is a metaphor which reoccurs throughout Ma Vie de Courgette. The character of Raymond (Michel Vuillermo), for example, is a lonely, friendly policeman who likes to plant and grow cacti and other succulents. It is Raymond’s kindness towards Courgette which, in turn, nurtures another sort of growth, one which enables both characters (as well as those around them) to blossom.
There’s plenty I could say about this little film, whose short 66 minute running time is packed with magic. However, this is a piece that should not be missed and I want to encourage you to see it yourself. As the film ended, the lights of the Curzon were turned back on and my neighbours turned to discuss what they had just seen. It was clear that Barras had left the room with a shared atmosphere that I hadn’t felt before, largely thanks to the intimate nature of the independent movie theatre. So go out, support your local cinema and get lost in the colourful, plasticine world of Claude Barras.
Tout ira bien.
EXTRA: I went to watch this film with my talented friend and flatmate Amelia Grace Eve. If you’re here because stop-motion animation is your thing, don’t leave without checking her stuff out.
Wednesday 14 June 2017