Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ma Vie de Courgette: A poignant charmer

Ma Vie de Courgette (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

The Academy Award nominees in the Best Animated Film category always include one or two obscure surprises, and this year’s roster is no exception. American viewers well acquainted with Zootopia and Moana are apt to raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Ma Vie de Courgette, which is unlikely to achieve wide release in the States ... and more’s the pity.

Smitten by the captivating girl who has just joined the rest of the children at the orphanage,
Courgette makes a card that he hopes will express his feelings.
Indeed, the closest venues to the Sacramento market appear to be in Berkeley and San Francisco, where venues are scheduled to open the film on March 3. Check the official web site for details.

Animated films, as with any other genre, are a rich and varied international affair; the annual Oscar contenders are a timely reminder of this fact, even if American viewers are loathe to embrace such diversity. I still mourn the lamentable fate of 2012’s Ernest et Célestine, a French charmer that absolutely deserved to win the year that everybody went crazy for Frozen. Even with the publicity generated by its nomination, Ernest et Célestine couldn’t crack our market.

I’d hate to see the same thing happen to Ma Vie de Courgette. Aside from celebrating the patience and artistic skill with which Swiss filmmaker Claude Barras has created this film, via stop-motion animation, we also must applaud the narrative — adapted by Céline Sciamma from Giles Paris’ 2002 novel, Autobiographie d’une Courgette — as a deeply moving saga of children who fall through society’s cracks.

Indeed, the genius of this film lies in the very animated medium employed to tell its story. A live-action presentation, with actual children living these roles, would have been quite difficult to endure. By “distancing” us with colorful stop-motion puppets, Barras makes the same telling points in a kinder, gentler — but no less powerful — manner.

Barras even employed untrained children to voice these characters, which adds considerable intensity to the drama. These young performers deliver the same sweet, natural sincerity and stumbling uncertainty that characterized the kids hired to voice Charlie Brown and his friends, when A Charlie Brown Christmas became the first prime-time Peanuts TV special, back in 1965. (Using children was innovative then, when animated characters always were voiced by adults.)

Unfortunately, the English-language dub of Ma Vie de Courgette — released here as My Life as a Zucchini, a somewhat misleading translation — clearly involved veteran voice performers, which somewhat diminishes the film’s magic. Try, if possible, to catch the film in its original form.

The story opens on a little boy making a kite in his attic bedroom. It’s immediately clear, without any dialog, that he’s accustomed to entertaining himself ... and, right away, we’re uneasy. He’s surrounded by discarded beer cans, with which he builds a tower after setting the kite aside. The unstable structure falls apart, making a racket; this prompts a furious response from a drunken woman below, angered at having her television viewing interrupted.

The boy’s eyes widen with fear; his movements become agitated and panicked. The woman clomps upstairs, threatening a beating. Just as her head rises through the opening, the terrified boy slams the trapdoor. The impact knocks the woman down in a noisy tumble, after which she moves no more.

A kind and sensitive police officer, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), subsequently takes the boy’s statement. Although his given name is Icare, he prefers to be called Courgette (Zucchini), the diminutive nickname bestowed by his mother. The boy’s father is long gone, remembered only as a crayon figure drawn with crayon on the kite.

Young Gaspard Schlatter voices Courgette with a heartbreaking blend of grief and somber resignation: a small person carrying an impossible weight on his shoulders. (The performances that Barras and casting director Marie-Eye Hildbrand draw from Schlatter and all the other young performers are very, very impressive.)

Nobody, least of all Raymond, blames Courgette for his mother’s death ... but he certainly blames himself. He’s taken to a small orphanage run by kindly Mme Papineau (Monica Budde), who wisely gives him some space. Courgette immediately runs afoul of the pecking order established by self-declared “alpha orphan” Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), who mercilessly taunts the newcomer.

But that dynamic shifts when Courgette stands up to the bully, after which — in the manner of such things — the two become close friends. Simon confesses that his parents were drug addicts, and then explains the back-stories belonging to all the other residents: Beatrice (Lou Wick) lost her mother when she was “expelled” and sent back to Africa, one day while the little girl was at school; chubby Jujube (Eliot Sanchez) watched his mother live the mindless monotony of obsessive-compulsive disorder; Ahmed’s (Raul Ribera) father was jailed for armed robbery; Alice’s (Estelle Hennard) father abused her.

Simon recites these details in the flat, detached manner of a child resigned to misery, while at the same time displaying youthful innocence. (Sciamma’s script is impressively sensitive.) Discussing Alice, Simon explains, “Her father, he used to do creepy things to her, disgusting stuff. I’m not quite sure what ... he’s in jail now.”

Barras matches these woeful details with telling character quirks. Beatrice rushes to the door every time she hears a car, hoping that her mother has returned; Alice hides her face behind a lock of her blond hair. Both are beyond tragic.

By this point, we’re already overlooking the fact that these children are rendered by clay-like puppets; they’re wholly persuasive individuals, despite the fact that Barras’ figure composition is unusual, to say the least. All the children have huge, Peanuts-style heads that overwhelm their small bodies. Their eyes are large and saucer-like, their worm-like noses a bright red, as if they’re always suffering from a cold. Courgette’s hair is bright blue; Simon’s is ferociously orange.

And although the tone is solemn, Barras’ presentation isn’t depressing; even forlorn children experience moments of spontaneous delight. The latter mood is enhanced by the arrival of Camille (Sixtine Murat), a somewhat stronger, more self-assured girl whose presence is a ray of sunshine ... despite her own horrific back-story.

Courgette immediately falls in love. He also promises to protect Camille, and she definitely needs protection; her only potential guardian is her loutish Aunt Ida (Brigitte Rosset), a greedy opportunist hoping to gain custody of the little girl solely to get the government checks.

Raymond, meanwhile, has been visiting frequently, and taking a definite interest in Courgette. Could this mean...?

The story’s grimmer aspects are mitigated, at all times, by Barras’ attention to the small gestures and little details that characterize all children. He understands the power of holding on a moment, of allowing us to digest a character’s stray remark. Occasional sight gags prompt unexpected laughter, as when Camille is caught reading Kafka.

Backdrops tend to be bleak, symbolizing the outer-world traumas from which the children have escaped. In deliberate contrast, the unusually bright colors that characterize Courgette and his new friends, and their equally vibrant clothing, signify their resilience and (mostly) positive outlook. Even against such odds, they wish to be survivors.

The film’s gentle, delicate tone is enhanced by Sophie Hunger’s understated score: a simple musical backdrop of quiet guitar, bass and vibraphone. Her vocal — “Le Vent Nous Portera,” heard during the end credits — is particularly poignant.

In the press notes, Barras explains that his film is “above all, an homage to neglected and mistreated children who do the best they can to survive and live with their wounds.” He has succeeded, and then some; Ma Vie de Courgette is beautifully constructed, thoroughly engaging and deeply moving. It should be required viewing for anybody who works with children at risk.

It’s also endearing and unexpectedly delightful. Bearing the latter in mind, be sure to hang around during the aforementioned end credits; they break midway for an animated rendering of young Schlatter’s voice audition, which is funny and quite touching in its own right.

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