Ma vie de Courgette
The Oscar-nominated animated film Ma vie de Courgette — subtitled and dubbed in English as “My Life as a Zucchini” — may be distributed by GKIDS, but as with others they’ve put out it might not exactly be what you think of as a kids’ movie. For example, within the first five minutes, the impossibly sad-eyed, nine-year-old Icarus has accidentally killed the drunken, abusive single mother who nicknamed him “Courgette”.
From there, Courgette (Gaspard Schlatter, Erick Abbate in the English dub) is taken to an orphanage by a police officer, Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz/Nick Offerman). There, Mme. Papineau, Rosy, and M. Paul (Monica Budde/Susanne Blakeslee, Véronique Montel/Ellen Page, and Adrien Barazzone/Will Forte) care for and educate a half-dozen children in similarly dire straits.
The red-headed Simon (Paulin Jaccoud/Romy Beckman) is a bit of a bully, but once Courgette pushes back he explains the rest of the crew. His parents were addicts, he says, but doesn’t explain the scar that pushes his hair’s part way back on his head. Bea was left behind when her mother was deported, and constantly hopes each car that pulls up is her mother back again. Jujube’s mother had OCD, which turned into an abusive situation for him. Ahmed’s father is in prison for armed robbery. Alice’s father molested her, leaving her prone to nightmares and fugue states where she can only rattle her fork against her plate at dinner. “We’re all the same,” he tells Courgette, “There’s nobody left to love us.”
By the time Camille (Sixtine Murat/Ness Krell) shows up — dropped off by an aunt who doesn’t want to care for her after her parents’ murder/suicide but wants the foster check — even I’m ready to open a vein. Yes, there’s a certain sweetness to the way these kids find life among the ashes, but there’s a whole lot of ashes to wade through. I feel for the unsuspecting parents who find themselves explaining all the horrors of the world after taking their own kids to this one.
In fairness to Water Lilies, Tomboy, and Girlhood writer/director Céline Sciamma, who adapted Gilles Paris’ novel, Autobiographie d’une courgette, the story is probably not intended for children in the first place. It’s a narrative of childhood trauma that derives much of its effect from being written in the first person, like Room. Recasting events through the eyes of children who are not prepared to deal with what they’re seeing brings an odd mixture of immediacy and distance. Nothing is filtered, but the true horrors of their experiences are not yet understood.
Courgette himself still clings to his nickname, devoted to the mother who ignored him while she got drunk, then beat him when he distracted her from getting drunk. That sort of tells you the lost, confused state of kids like these, who are then warehoused together before they can even begin to process what has happened to them. In the psychology of its young characters, Ma vie de Courgette is sharply observed and depressingly accurate. The tidy ending is almost necessary to keep the melancholy from becoming unbearable, but on some level it feels like a cheat, turning the audience into little more than tourists of misery.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.