There’s nothing like a story set in an orphanage to get the tear ducts flowing and My Life as a Courgette hits all the right notes, slipping under your defenses and reducing you to a pile of mush without you even knowing it’s happening. Coming in at a slim 66 minutes, this stop animation Swiss/French treat beguiles from start to finish.
9-year old Icare lives in a squalid house with his mother. We never get a good look at her, just the trail of beer cans she tosses aside while watching TV. Icare collects the cans, his only toys apart from a kite. We hear his mother’s voice constantly, always referring to him as ‘courgette’.
In a freak accident, Icare’s beer swilling mother is killed and the only option is for the boy to be sent to a foster home. He’s sent to a small institution that houses only five other kids.
Like Icare, they all have oversized heads and huge round, expressive eyes. Nevertheless, their distinct personalities are conveyed economically by other visual cues, most noticeably their hairstyles. Class bully Simon has an upturned twirl of vivid orange, bashful Alice a blonde fringe covering one eye and daydreamy Ahmed a tight cloud-like froth of dark hair.
Icare, who has deep blue hair that matches the colouring around his eyes, insists on being called Courgette. It’s an attempt to hold on to the memory of his mother, which also explains the beer can he keeps under his bed.
As far as stories set in an orphanage go, nothing that happens within this one is terribly traumatic. The staff are kind, from fatherly policeman Raymond to foster home director Mrs Papineau, and there’s a sense of camaraderie between the kids most of the time. There’s no escaping however, the sadness the children live with and the feeling they carry with them that no one loves them.
A different kind of love appears in the form of newly arrived orphan Camille, who Courgette immediately becomes smitten with. Mourning the death of her own mother, Camille is fearful that her mean Aunt Ida will gain custody of her for the sole purpose of gaining government benefits.
Since everything we see is from the children’s point of view, there isn’t a lot in the way of criticism of the state welfare system, which was more prevalent in the book this is based on. Gilles Paris’ Autobiography of a Courgette was targeted more at young adults and contained some pretty explicit violence at times. The film embraces a younger audience, training its focus on the bond between these impressionable young people, dealing with upsetting events from their past, guardedly hanging on to hope for the future and learning about life without the aid of any real role models or authority figures.
These are themes that screenwriter Céline Sciamma has explored previously with great success in her directorial works Girlhood, Water Lillies and Tomboy.
There’s a charming simplicity to Ludovic Chemarin’s production design, Claude Barras’ direction and the delicate songs of Sophie Hunger. Tragedy and pain are often hinted at in ways that will affect adults, but not be too confrontational for younger minds.
My Life as a Courgette deservedly picked up the audience award at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s a beautiful work of art that, like its main character, deserves a lot of love.
My Life as a Courgette is currently screening at ACMI. There are screenings of the original French language version with subtitles, and an English language version entitled My Life as a Zucchini