Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 29, 2016 2:22 am 
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Tough kids

This stop-motion animated film from the Swiss director Claude Barras is about little kids, but is it for little kids? Its treatment of a group in a foster care center who've encountered hard knocks early on could build sensitivity among youngsters, but their parents might not want them to see it. It delivers a parallel and engaging message. Just as we the viewers surprise ourselves by how fond we grow of young critters who look like big-eyed rag dolls, the kids they represent, with little to go on in previous knowledge or experience of love, develop deep loyalty and affection toward each other in the film's short but emotionally intense 70-minute run time.. All this is thanks to Barras' fortunate collaboration on the writing with the 36-year-old Céline Sciamma, whose three films thus far as a writer-director, Water Lilies/Naissance des pieuvres (2007), Tomboy (2011), and Girlhood/Bande de filles (2014) has each in its different way shown a fresh, bold way of looking at the experience of youth. (Sciamma's contribution as a writer has just been seen in André Téchiné's strong new gay coming-of-ager, Being 17/Quand on a 17 ans.) Here she is adapting a novel by Gilles Paris.

Icare (Icarus, voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) is a 9-year-old who prefers his nickname "Courgette" (aubergine, zucchini). He lives with his alcoholic sigle mother, until he causes her accidental death, and he is taken by a kindly, mustachioed policeman called Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz), to the orphanage. We feel keenly the loneliness and strangeness of the first hours there, the first, sleepless, night. He is mercilessly teased by others, led by Simon (Paulin Jaccoud). Simon's rag-doll face is the most interesting. Its sharp angularity seems cruel, and then reflects vulnerability. It soon becomes clear the kids share very similar experiences of deadbeat, druggie, alcoholic and absent parents.

Barras and Sciamma don't make the foster center a harsh place. Just being there is hard enough for these lost children. Every minute there, and on a brief trip to the mountains, is a time of intense learning and change for the kids. Simon razzes Courgette and insists on calling him "Potato." When the moment comes that he uses "Courgette," it's a big coming together. Then comes the arrival of Camille, whom Courgette falls for. Again the bonding owes a lot to sharing similar, grim backgrounds. Things get more complicated when an evil aunt wants to adopt Camille, and the sweet Raymond first visits, then wants to adopt, the children.

As Boyd van Hoeij says in his Cannes review for Variety, given that the kids' "faces are made of plasticine, what Barras has achieved here is nothing short of a miracle." There is nothing like the complicated mise-en-scène of the Belgian stop-motion Panique au village of Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, but somehow we're immediately drawn in emotionally and it stays that way. It's almost as if the more blatantly unreal the scenes and critters are, how simple and minimal the settings, the more we identify and care. Some of the vivid, delicately particularized experience depicted here is sure to stay with you.

Ma vie de courgette/My LIfe As a Courgette, 66 mins., debuted 15 May 2016 in Directors Fortnight at Cannes; close to a dozen other festivals including Annecy and Angoulême. French theatrical release 19 Oct.: rave reviews (AlloCiné press rating 4.5 based on 30 critiques). Screened for this review at MK2 Odéon Hautefeuille 28 Oct. 2016. There were some little kids brought to the early show; I wondered how it went for them. Probably fine. They're tougher than we know; that's what the film itself is telling us. And as van Hoeij points out this is ultimately a happy movie that ends with sunshine.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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