There’s an unusual tension at the heart of Claude Barras’ Ma vie de Courgette (titled My Life as a Zucchini here in the States, though the translation seems to lose something). That tension – between its subject matter and its treatment of its subject matter – isn’t irreconcilable, per se, but it is ambiguous enough that it’s likely to leave no two audience members with precisely the same impression of the film and its purpose.
Icare (Gaspard Schlatter) is a French boy whose mother (Natacha Koutchoumov) has nicknamed him “Courgette” – “Zucchini.” His mother is also, apparently, an abusive alcoholic, and when she tries to climb the stairs to Courgette’s to administer a beating, Courgette’s panicked attempt at self-defense ends with her death. Since his father is absent, he’s taken by a kindly police officer (Michel Vuillermoz) to a small orphanage. There, he navigates the other children, each with their own tragic road to the orphanage and their own ways of dealing with the abuses and horrors they suffered. Soon, another terrible tragedy delivers Camille (Sixtine Murat) to the orphanage; and when Courgette falls in love, he will try to help fight to keep her out of the clutches of her abusive, greedy aunt (Brigitte Rosset).
If this sounds extremely, almost unbearably dark… it isn’t. Instead, Ma vie de Courgette is a sometimes-melancholy, mellow, even breezy, and ultimately almost-bewilderingly optimistic film. The orphanage is pleasant and supportive, almost idyllic, and the adults who run it caring and committed to their charges. The children are generally kind to each other, and the only bully is rapidly converted into a steadfast friend and ally. In fact, for a film whose premise is built upon some of the most vicious cruelties and heart-shattering tragedies man can endure, the central fact of Ma vie de Courgette is that almost nothing bad happens in the film, at all, ever, period. In fact, almost nothing but good things happen, and when bad things do happen, they get reversed by even gooder things. It’s…weird.
One the one hand, it’s hard not to admire the film’s craft. For those inclined to take it for granted, claymation is hard. Almost more than any other kind of cinema, everything must be planned in concert in every detail, with no margin for error; the sheer labor of producing any output at all is boggling. And lest I be accused of flattening the art of stop-motion animation, modelling, and design, Ma vie en Courgette is indeed exquisite. It’s not just rife with detail, but telling detail. It’s not just alive with color and motion, but thoughtful with them. It truly fashions a little world, and inhabits it fully. It finds a pitch-perfect balance between evocation and economy, playing with angles and light, and it’s lovely, every inch.
On the other hand, the film makes some narrative choices that are genuinely limiting. Almost none of the characters in the film has an arc in any meaningful sense. Even our protagonist doesn’t really grow or evolve; he just gets less sad, an entirely-reasonable but less-than-dramatic progression. And many of the secondary characters, especially the children, are literally two-dimensional; they can all be described as the [descriptor] who [behavior]s, and none of them really break out from that mold during the film. Indeed, they seem assembled precisely to catalogue types, rather than provide a meaningful and organic ecosystem for our primary characters to engage in. Just because a film is made from clay doesn’t mean it shouldn’t breathe.
It is hard to describe the odd central tension of Ma vie de Courtgette without seeing it. One could imagine the film fueling both lavish praise and withering criticisms – but neither of those feel really deserved after watching the thing. Perhaps the most telling detail of the whole film happens as a mid-credits bonus, when the filmmakers animate the audition reel for actual-child Schaltter: they clearly find joy and warmth in something inherent to childhood. Perhaps what Ma vie de Courgette boils down to, as warm as it is weird, is how one can find joy and warmth in even the direst circumstances.