My Life As a Courgette

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Please note: this article contains spoilers

Many modern, studio-produced animations miss a trick when churning out their next box office-dominating family film. In their determination to meet a certain formula, Illumination Entertainment, Dreamworks et al. create slick, glossy films with barely a flaw in their expensive computer animation. Yet beneath the sheen, there’s no character. Worse, the animation rarely reflects the themes or tone of the film. Sure, in Sing they can render the texture of an elephant’s trunk, but the animation contributes nothing to creating an atmosphere or exploring the ideas within the story.

Animation, at its best, is a medium that can use drawings, or stop motion, or computer generated-images, to create unforgettable images. It’s cinema at its most imaginatively visual, with a carte blanche to manipulate the images on screen and produce something awe-inspiring. Films such as Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya use their medium as a direct avenue into the emotions of the characters and as another way of exploring what the film is actually saying. My Life as a Courgette, the Oscar-nominated film from Claude Barras, is another film that understands the importance of using your medium to tell the story visually. Its charming, simple stop-motion aesthetic is one of the major factors in the film’s storytelling success. 

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Barras’ style is immediately winsome and distinctive. Wide-eyed characters with oversized heads and discoloured skin populate his sparsely detailed world. He cites Le Manège Enchanté (a French TV series by Serge Danot) and Jiří Trnka’s The Hand as his direct influences on this aesthetic, two productions that created memorable images using simple figures and landscapes. He explains a further reason for this stripped-back look:

“Perhaps a kind of simplicity resulting from the technique and the budget. I think that the very small budget (8M) influenced the directorial choices as much as the stop-motion technique. For me, simplifying is not weakening, but going to the essential. My Life as a Courgette is a realistic story and I chose to put the realism into the voices, the lighting and the lean production, things that do not cost too much.”[1]

The simplicity of the stop-motion animation is fundamental to the appeal of the film, leaving a lasting impact through conveying unseen histories, tangible emotions and a childlike worldview. Celebrated director Céline Sciamma wrote the screenplay, a writer known for telling effortlessly moving tales of children on the fringes of society. She explains the appeal of writing Courgette on the back of Girlhood, Tomboy and more: “I felt a strong connection between my work and this material, because it’s not just about youth, but youth at the margin. There’s a strong social context to work with; you can be political and make propositions.”[2]

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Courgette is not, on the face of it, a political film, yet the subtlest of social commentaries is woven into the narrative. Not only that, but it also deals with a group of children with traumatic pasts. Their parents are alcoholics, criminals, abusers and murderers. The film opens with Courgette collecting the discarded beer cans of his neglectful mother; these are heavy, emotional topics for a film ostensibly aimed at children, yet the attractive simplicity of the animation lets the themes sneak in, almost unannounced.

Most of the impact of the animation emerges through the micro-expressions on the faces of the characters in the orphanage, making their inner lives tangible to even the youngest of audiences. “For the puppets, I tried to simplify the design as much as possible in order to convey emotions simply while at the same time facilitating the animation work,” explains Barras. “Their faces are like emoticons, they have such a simple aspect that the emotions rise to the surface with an almost imperceptible movement of an eyelid.”[3] Through stripping the world of details, Barras allows the audience an insight into the thoughts and feelings of Courgette and his friends. Younger viewers can immediately understand the ongoing plight of the orphans because the animation frames their world in a way that instantly evokes sympathy.

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One of the most beautiful details of the orphanage is a mood board that hangs on the wall by the entrance to the garden. Each child can signal how they are feeling by putting their marker on a weather formation – sunny, stormy etc. It’s a sweet technique that belies the emotional complexity of the film, which allows for every shade of emotion from its colourful cast of characters. In spite of this complexity, viewers of all ages will be able to follow each character’s emotional journey through the elegant simplicity of the character animation.

The other way that Courgette gets away with such morose and difficult themes is by animating the world in a way that the lead character might see it. The landscapes that Courgette inhabits are sparse, with few trees and buildings covering a world of block colours. This doesn’t diminish the immense charm of the film; instead, it gently evokes how our lead character may see the world, allowing other viewers of the same age to enter his emotional world. The simplicity of the design creates intimacy and empathy, which brings some light into the darkness.

Finally, we see through the simplicity of the animation that each of the characters carries with them the weight of history. Variety’s review of the film picked up on this detail: “Though brightly coloured and appealingly designed, its lightly damaged characters bear the crooked noses and never-explained facial scars of their well-worn childhoods — external evidence of all that they have been through at their young age.”[4] The very design of the characters, although all fitting a similar mould, captures the often-unseen past of their lives. The tragedy behind each of these orphans is not explained in detail, but we can see the impact through the looks that each one of them wears.

This is a film that balances sadness with the numerous joys of childhood, creating a space where children have lives that are as emotionally rich and complex as that of adults. It manages this without alienating even its younger audience, thanks to the choice to keep the animation simple. Through highly expressive stop-motion animation and childish sets inspired by old TV, the film creates a world full of heart and wonder. Unlike so many other animations with far bigger budgets, My Life as a Courgette understands the visual impact of its medium and how it can contribute to the story it is telling.

Nathanael Smith

Freelance copywriter, copy editor and film critic
June 2017





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