My Life as a Courgette
Running Time: 66 minutes
Director: Claude Barras
Cast: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud & Michel Vuillermoz
(QFT Press Screening)
After losing his mother, a young boy is sent to a foster home with other orphans his age where he begins to learn the meaning of trust and true love.
‘Courgette… Did your mum call you that?’
I was struck the first time I saw The Incredibles, ostensibly a kids’ movie, when a man tries to kill himself in the opening moments of the Pixar production. He fails of course but this was in a kids’ movie, under the Disney banner no less. It was a dark edge to an otherwise bright, sparkly movie. It’s not that shocking really as Disney have been adapting fairy tales long before Pixar brought their specific brand of melancholic euphoria to the table.
It’s no secret that fairy tales have dark edges – but blunted just enough so that kids don’t know the full horrors of the world they inhabit – but they are there to serve an educational purpose: Don’t tell lies (Pinocchio); step-mothers are inherently evil (Snow White) and spindles are bad (Sleeping Beauty).
Pixar essentially do a wonderful service for the world of absent parents (or “modern parenting” as I think it’s called) as there as some great life lessons to be found in films like Finding Nemo/Dory, Wall-E, Up, Inside Out and Toy Story 3.
But if I have a criticism of these films – and it’s not really a criticism, I am in awe of films like Finding Nemo – it’s that sometimes it is hard to relate to the reality they present. The Pixar stable of films have very relatable themes of course but the reality their characters inhabit is not quite ours and I understand that fish and toys don’t actually talk…well, fish definitely don’t talk but who’s to say what toys get up to when we leave the room? The science just isn’t in on that yet.
To elaborate a little bit on what I’m trying to say, the humour in something like Finding Dory or Toy Story 3 is quite broad; they’re gags essentially. Again not a criticism as pleasing adults and kids is a delicate balancing act but they are gags, generally speaking, as opposed to humour that originates from something a little deeper and possibly a little darker.
Wes Anderson, certainly in his earlier work, was able to mine a lot of comedy out of some pretty dark stuff. The scene of Bill Murray in Rushmore nonchalantly tossing golf balls into a pool is a really funny visual but also incredibly sad as this is a man in a deep depression. And we don’t usually see this type of humour in animated films or, in the case of My Life as a Courgette, stop-motion animation.
The early Wes Anderson comparison is quite apt as the film has a tremendous look and feel that doesn’t readily ape or steal from other films and the humour is at times both hilarious and heart-breaking. My Life as a Courgette is a Swiss/French production that actually came out last year (and even got a Best Animated Feature nod at the 2017 Oscars) and tells the story of a boy nicknamed Courgette ,who after the death of his mother, is sent to an orphanage where he meets other orphans of similarly tragic backgrounds.
And what I didn’t mention is that Courgette’s mother, after the break-up of her marriage, became an alcoholic and when we first meet Courgette, he’s surrounded by empty beer cans. Also, Courgette accidentally kills his own mother. So far, so not Pixar. And the other kids we meet have similarly miserable backgrounds – there is even a character that, it is strongly hinted, has been sexually abused by her own father.
This all sounds pretty heavy and not something kids should necessarily see but you would be wrong! Yes, the film is emotionally heavy at times but it’s also bright and hopeful against some pretty bleak odds. And funny, God, it is funny.
Perhaps its biggest strength is the focus on a realistic story and its lack of cynicism. Typically in films at an orphanage, the administrators or the carers would be villainous or indifferent but refreshingly (and in a nice nod to all those who do good work in social care), they are there to help and genuinely care for these children.
The tension really comes from the uncertainty of Courgette in his new surroundings and how he initially clashes with Simon, another kid in the orphanage that teases him somewhat cruelly. But again – with much credit to screenwriters- Simon isn’t just some “bully” character, he’s a fully fleshed out human being who is arguably the most important character by the end of the film.
What makes this film a cut above something like Pixar is that it doesn’t shirk the realities of life for some people or the parlous nature of being in social care or the ineluctable fact that adults will disappoint us. Well, not all adults, because the film also serves as a reminder that some people genuinely care and that trust won’t always be broken.
Courgette eventually finds a friend in Simon and not to mention, there is a rather sweet love story in the film between Courgette and another orphan called Camille that serves to drive the story forward.
My Life as a Courgette has a unique and wonderful look and gives Laika (Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings) a run for its money but the storytelling is really what makes this film very special.
Perhaps what this film ultimately illustrates is that the subterfuge of fairy tales is unnecessary for kids especially when you can just present reality as it is. Sure, it’s animated, but it pulls no punches as the film recognises that kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for.
I can’t recommend My Life as a Courgette (or Zucchini for the Americans) highly enough. The run time is 66 minutes and it never feels slight. The score by Sophie Hunger (a jazz pop singer from Switzerland) is achingly beautiful and matches the look of the film perfectly. Catch this while you can.