The most memorable thing about Claude Barras’s French-Swiss stop-motion film, “Ma Vie de Courgette” (“My Life as a Zucchini”), is the expression in the puppets’ eyes. Courgette’s are rimmed with a chilly blue and little floating brows that slope down sweetly, giving a very open look to his face. He always looks tired, and if the corners of his tiny cherry-pink lips were slightly droopier he would look like a World War II-era poster of a boy soldier with a thousand-yard stare. But the nuances of his very small smile and his bright red ears turn his sadness into a lovely sense of vulnerability. It is because of such gentle subtleties that the film seems to shine from a place deep inside.
“Ma Vie de Courgette” tells the story of an orphaned boy who slowly comes to find love and friendship at his new orphanage. The children there are all a little odd and come from troubled backgrounds, and initially Courgette has a hard time adjusting. He faces bullying from the very redheaded and red-clothed Simon, although they later become friends, and he finds a fascination in the gentle, low-ponytailed Camille, who might soon be taken away by her terrible aunt for the child-support money.
The film is short and sweet like its protagonist—only 66 minutes—and the plot is threadbare, leaving room for myriad little details to flesh out the slowly developing relationships. The story is one that is often seen in movies--the inspiring tale of the new kid in school finding his place—but it is executed with such sincerity and sensitivity that its usage of tropes feels irrelevant. The sequence of events and emotional landmarks depicted in the film feels perfectly natural and true to the psychology of a child who finds himself parentless in a strange new world.
Also like Courgette himself, this film is a quiet one—there is no internal dialogue from Courgette, and so much is left for the viewer to intuit from carefully chosen camera angles, sounds, and situations. In one scene Courgette is lying in bed, and he quickly burrows under his blanket and pretends to be asleep when he hears the other children come in. The camera remains fixed in Courgette’s little corner, so that we can see his open eyes blinking silently at the darkened wall. We hear the caretaker’s footsteps echoing around the room as she distributes good-night kisses, all while trapped in the small enclosed space under Courgette’s blanket. Although the film’s illustrative style is quirky and fantastical, featuring bright crayon-color hair and custom-designed head shapes, the actual events feel sharply realistic.
Courgette finds a kindred spirit in Camille—they are both gentle and weary souls with similar tiny heart-shaped faces and perfectly round, melancholy eyes. Their budding romance, like everything else in the film, is understated and delicate. The children whisper nervously about sex—Simon claims to know almost everything from his parents’ old DVDs—and they discuss the romantic relationship between Rosy, their caretaker, and Mr. Ahmed, their teacher, and how their new baby came to be. Talk of sex is treated lightly by the grown-ups, and the children’s anxious interest comes off as wonderfully endearing, fading into the film’s broader focus on love. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, the children are on a ski trip, and they all watch, with hunger in their eyes, a mother fussing over her child. “There’s nobody left to love us,” Simon tells Courgette. But the film is full of hope, and it gently invites the viewer to adopt them all for the hour.
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