My Life as a Courgette

Claude Barras
Release Year:
Gilles Paris (novel), Céline Sciamma (screenplay) (adaptation)
Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud
Screening Date:
  • 7 Nov 2017
  • Categories:
    Animation, Comedy, Drama

    After losing his mother, a young boy (nicknamed Courgette) is sent to a foster home with other orphans where he begins to learn the meaning of trust and true love. Charming stop-motion claymation allows us to watch life through the eyes of a child.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    The less pleasant realities of life are not kept as far from mainstream children’s cinema as its sickly-sweet reputation would suggest: from bereavement in Bambi (1942) and Finding Nemo (2003) to familial dysfunction in Lilo & Stitch (2002) and abduction, false imprisonment and Stockholm syndrome in Tangled (2010), blockbuster animation has made frequent efforts to address a range of knotty issues. Nonetheless, the upfront acknowledgement in My Life as a Courgette that many childhoods play out with nary a hint of magic, sparkle or sugar to help the medicine go down feels unorthodox and bracing. The bad or absent parents here aren’t fish, wicked witches or other merchandisable metaphors: they’re people, with drink problems, criminal records and all manner of darker symptoms of human frailty. And the children are what damaged children can be: difficult, peculiar, old beyond their years and achingly vulnerable. Courgette is the family nickname of Icare: after accidentally precipitating the demise of his alcoholic mother, Courgette is placed in a children’s home with other sons and daughters of the deceased, absent or incapable. “We’re all the same,” says the home’s resident bully, Simon. “There’s nobody left to love us.” But after some teething problems, Icare’s experience proves Simon wrong: with the help of confident, sparky new girl Camille, the group forge their very own loving bonds, and to some is held out the hope of a happy ending. The film is scripted by Céline Sciamma – known for her live-action films Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014) – from a 2002 novel by Gilles Paris, and rendered in simple but loving stop-motion animation by Swiss director Claude Barras. It was nominated for an Oscar this year for best animated feature. As one might expect of a stop-motion film concerning the dark home lives and odd habits of institutionalised children, the film makes stylistic nods to Tim Burton; its big-eyed, haunted kids resemble his creations, particularly for Frankenweenie (2012). However, My Life as a Courgette shares neither Burton’s investment in the supernatural nor his somewhat sneery attitude to conventionality as opposed to sensitive, creative, isolated weirdness. Conventionality, after all – in the specific form of a home complete with at least one functioning, reliable parent – is what Courgette and his friends most crave. Weirdness, such as Courgette’s mother’s tendency to talk to herself and live off beer, or another child having been fed on toothpaste through his early years, is no kooky posture, but the source of real and lasting damage. And the fact that damage is a given among these kids renders its scars no less fresh or stinging: one small girl greets every car that pulls up to the children’s home with a hopeful cry of “Maman?” before dejectedly returning indoors on her own. The problem for a film like this is how to balance realism with hope, and how to offer both to an audience that’s somewhat tricky to conceptualise beyond the rarefied space of film festivals. It opts to lurch in bold but somewhat ungainly fashion from near-unbearable sadness (little Courgette trooping around picking up his mum’s empty beer cans while she rails at the television and threatens to spank him) to a rallying cry for hope and positivity (a new family and a secure future for Courgette and Camille). For some adult viewers, the gulf between the two realities may feel a little too easily bridged, and the ending too unrepresentative of the fortunes of most older kids in care. But the film is careful to remind us that such outcomes are neither commonplace nor trouble-free. When Courgette hesitates to abandon his friends in the home, his bully-turned-friend Simon reminds him in no uncertain terms how unusual it is for adoption to present itself as an option in their situation. Meanwhile the film observes with pinpoint poignancy the small things that can bring joy to blighted lives, from clumsy dancing at a disco to the private cactus farm that identifies Courgette’s future foster-father as someone adept at caring for things at once tender and spiky. It’s likely that children, who are often tougher viewers than adults, will shrug off this sort of content with rather more dignity than their parents.
    Hannah McGill, Sight and Sound, 2 June 2017
    A timid 9-year-old boy with blue hair and eyes as big as ping-pong balls ends up in an orphanage in My Life as a Courgette (Ma Vie de Courgette), the stop-motion animated film and feature debut from Swiss-born director Claude Barras. This lovingly told and gorgeously rendered story is based on French novelist Gilles Paris’ Autobiography of a Courgette and, yes, that means that the pint-sized protagonist is nicknamed after a summer squash. Though not as dark as the book that inspired it, nor as directly critical of the French welfare state — it’s never even quite clear which country the film is set in — this tale of a shy kid who ends up with other orphaned misfits after causing the accidental death of his alcoholic mother is nonetheless not exactly a tale for all ages. That said, savvy distributors who know how to market high-end animated films to older audiences should get some decent mileage out of this Courgette. Without a doubt the biggest coup for the film and first-time feature helmer Barras was to land French auteur Celine Sciamma as the screenwriter, since her own movies (Girlhood, Tomboy and Water Lillies, all essential) and her screenwriting collaboration with Andre Techine on his recent Being 17 (also essential) have one thing in common: They are vividly realized, finger-on-the-pulse looks at the growing pains of youngsters. Though this movie is animated and she’s adapting already existing material rather than writing something from scratch, it’s impossible not to recognize her delicately observant touch, from the gawky humor so typical of juvenility to the way in which children on the brink of adulthood learn in fits and starts, as if early adolescence were a testing ground for adult behavior. Given that his real name is Icare (i.e., Icarus) but he’s not the kind to proudly ignore useful warnings about flying too close to the sun, it’s probably a good thing Courgette (voice of Gaspard Schlatter) can fall back on his much more innocent-sounding nickname. That said, even that name comes with some emotional baggage. After Courgette has accidentally caused the death of his alcoholic mother, he tells a kind, mustachioed policeman, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), that he wants to be called Courgette since it’s one of the very few things that he’s got left that his mother gave him. (In an economical yet very effective masterstroke, one of the others is an empty beer can he’s taken with him.) The bulk of this slender, 66-minute film is set at an orphanage where Courgette is dropped off by the kind Raymond and where he hesitantly gets to know his peers. They include the big-mouthed leader, Simon (Paulin Jaccoud); the quiet, dinosaur-loving Ahmed (Elliot Sanchez); the shy Alice (Estelle Hennard), always hiding behind her hair, and the football-loving tough girl Camille (Sixtine Murat), who says what she thinks. Their adventures at the orphanage and on a trip to the mountains where they get to play in the snow are the stuff of countless children’s tales. What sets Courgette apart is the constant attention to how each incident and experience influences and builds character, which is how these children can slowly ease themselves into their future grown-up selves. Thus, Raymond’s warmth and kindness toward Courgette re-establishes his faith in adults, while the dynamic between Simon and Courgette goes from defensively testy — Simon insists on calling him “Potato” — to something more complex and real. The subplot involving the protagonist’s growing feelings for Camille could have used a bit more work, however, especially given where they’ll finally end up as the pic draws to a close. That said, a sequence in which the two have a heart-to-heart under a starry sky is one of the feature’s highlights, even if their dialogue sounds more adult-like than their respective 9 and 10 years of age (the fact they’ve gone through a lot before becoming orphans might have something to do with that). Clearly, Courgette either sinks or soars based on how involved viewers will become in the story. Given that there’s a lot of offscreen hurt for many of the preteen characters but that their faces are made of plasticine, what Barras has achieved here is nothing short of a miracle. The figures all have large heads with equally large eyes — they look like ping-pong balls with irises glued on — ensuring that even a medium shot can be very expressive and convey a lot of emotion. To further direct initial attention to the faces, the characters have tiny, wiry bodies that are nattily dressed, again with a great eye for detail. Barras, credited with the graphic design, and art director Ludovic Chemarin's sets are all painstakingly made, uncluttered but with carefully selected characteristics to make sure they feel properly lived in. Their colors go from weathered tones to increasingly sunny hues as the story progresses and the locations change and they benefit immensely from the gorgeous, drama-enhancing lighting from cinematographer David Toutevoix. If there’s one thing that Barras should pay more attention to when he goes on to make his next feature, it’s that for the moment, the overall look and mise-en-scene never quite scream “cinema,” as My Life as a Courgette retains an intimate register that would work just as well on home-format screens. But to follow in the footsteps of the orphans, who use a weather board to suggest what mood they are in on any given day by selecting a meteorological condition (clear, cloudy, thunderstorms …), this critic would definitely rate this film “sunny” for the soul.
    Boyd van Hoeij, The Hollywood Reporter, 15 May 2016
    Director Céline Sciamma has already demonstrated keen insights into what it means to be young and French in Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), as well as in her screenplay for André Téchiné's Being 17 (2016). But as screenwriter she proves even sharper in this animated adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel, Autobiographie d'une Courgette, which marks Swiss director Claude Barras’ transition from acclaimed shorts like The Genie In A Ravioli Can (2006). Refusing to sentimentalise the plight of the seven youngsters residing at Les Fontaines, Barras and Sciamma ensure that each has an unflinchingly authentic backstory that makes their bond all the more plausible and poignant. Camille (Krell) witnessed the argument that left both parents dead, while Alice (Clara Young) was abused, Beatrice’s (Olivia Buckner) mother was deported, Simon’s (Romy Beckman) folks did drugs, Georgie’s (Finn Robbins) mother has OCD and Ahmed's (Barry Mitchell) father was jailed for shoplifting. Courgette’s (Abbate) sole possessions are a beer-can souvenir of his mother and a self-drawn kite that unknowingly depicts his father’s womanising. Such gritty reality may not seem suited to animation (Barras calls it “Ken Loach for kids”). But, with their big eyes and subtle stop-motion movements, the Plasticine characters are hugely expressive, while the action is dotted with joyous set-pieces like a trip to a ski resort and touching details like the weather-themed mood indicator and hilarious speculations on what grown-ups do in bed. The Oscar nomination, therefore, was thoroughly deserved.
    David Parkinson, Empire, 28 May 2017

    What you thought about My Life as a Courgette

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    60 (80%) 12 (16%) 3 (4%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 75
    Film Score (0-5): 4.76

    Collated Response Comments

    127 members and guests came along to see the short film “Tribe, the Life of Han” and “My life as a Courgette”. 75 provided responses, a hit rate of 60%. Same as last time. Many thanks…keep them coming. As the stats show, 96% of those responding “Loved Courgette” and your views were summed up with “An excellent story; poignant and funny in equal measure”. Adjectives were displayed to the full extent with “Quirky, funny, moving, tragic, hopeful, sad, mournful, sweet, and wonderful animation”. Others said it was “a sheer delight”. “Hugely entertaining. A delightful film. Exceptional animation which managed to convey a huge range of emotions. It had humorous moments also”. “Powerful, subtle, different and an astringent story about innocence, experience and love. Remarkable!” “Wonderfully sensitive film. Loved it”. “Poignant perceptions through children’s eyes and successful because you would never have child actors so skilful”. “Whilst I found it difficult to connect with the student film, I immediately, in contrast, connected with Courgette. A wonderful touching film, so “real” for animation”. A member sent an email which said “I really enjoyed both screenings this evening, a big tick of excellent for the above two films. Tribe – the subject of the film was very interesting and wanted to see more of how the story evolved. To meet the two talented artists who had composed this short film was a compliment to the audience this evening. The story, the choreography, the scene setting, the talent of the actors produced a very professional short film on a minimal budget and I wish the two Directors of the film every success for the future. It would be a pleasure to watch the rest of Tribe and well done to GFS for supporting such talented people. My Life as a Courgette – a good choice for this evening. The animation showed immense talent of creativeness in how the characters developed depicting a part of French society today, and probably worldwide. The expressions, movement of the animated characters and how the story evolved with so much stimulation to hold your attention. The scene settings, the interaction of the characters and how each character exhibited their personalities through the story. It was lovely and unusual to see a European animation.” “What a delightful film. So much expression in those soulful eyes. Never thought an animated film could convey so much emotion”. “My expectations of this film were not high. What a beautiful surprise. Touching funny and utterly absorbing. Well done GFS for introducing me to a film that I would never have discovered by myself”. “Wonderful film – so unusual to see a French film with a great script – and a beginning, middle and end in the right place!” There are many more comments on the website. “Loved the eyebrows, the policeman’s nose and the squirrel. Juxtaposition of this “innocent medium” and the back stories of the children. Delightful”. “Great production – in the true genre of French tragic comedy”. “Beautifully made and charming- pity the subtitles were a bit small for those of us with rather poor sight. A touching and worthwhile story”. “Completely charming and very touching. Admirable animation and a haunting soundtrack. An honest film dealing with troubled children who learn to care for each other when no one else will”. “Sadly effecting – especially if Courgette looks just like a sad little boy you know”. To the writer who proposed certain films for next season they have been added to the website. "Thank you for organising an enjoyable evening. Given the premise that this is a film about abused and mentally damaged kids in an orphanage and that our hero accidentally murders his mother in the first five minutes this is about as upbeat and positive as it could possibly be, finishing with a redemptive sequence that would make Disney blush. Redolent of Pixar’s better efforts in its depiction of the trickier stages of an already difficult childhood it has wit, charm, considerable humour and deft characterisation. It looks lovely. 5/5. “A delightful film. Sadness, charm and humour conveyed through brilliant animation against very simple background sets and a great script. Shows a film doesn't have to be long to make an impact and provide real enjoyment. Wasn't expecting that and another good choice from the film society”. Thanks. “I was deeply impressed and moved by this film, an unsentimental story about children damaged by inadequate, sometimes borderline criminal parenting but leavened with the happiness of a magical trip to the mountains, caring orphanage staff and their own mutual support. It provoked sober reflection: on our child care system that can fail so many of its powerless participants; on the profound need of children, especially when young, for loving parenting. To be critical, in reality the children would be unlikely to bond as they did, ditto the adoption of Icare/Courgette and Camille. But in all it was an absorbing, lucent piece”. “Good to support young people trying to achieve their goals in creativity. I thought the music was particularly effective. Loved the animation – the sensitivity and ‘edge’ kept it well away from being saccharine. I rate it as excellent.” “On the surface a joyful, charming film with adorable characters and a beautifully rendered world. Under the surface a poignant story of loss, abandonment, friendship and family. I wish all children’s homes were run by such loving staff but knowing that they aren’t, I left feeling a little sad for the ones left behind”.

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