J’ai perdu mon corps

France, 2019

Directed by Jérémy Clapin

(Animated movie)

A hand moving around even as it is attached to no arm: with the strange beginning capturing this hand getting out of the fridge where it was kept along with other human body parts, especially eyeballs, looking for an escape as keenly as a prisoner, the film seems to pertain to to the fantastic, horror-tinged genre. There is something creep and yet riveting to track the increasingly extraordinary and dramatic motions and gestures of this body part seemingly gifted with vision and intelligence as it rushes forward, despite many hurdles and mishaps, toward a destination that is hard to figure out for a long time but clearly stirs it to take great risks, an overriding goal that sounds like a deep urge, a powerful reason that is going to be an enigma for the audience, brilliantly keeping them on edge, with growing fascination and empathy.

The animation and shooting obviously help: the risks this cut-off hand must handle, as well as the upsetting encounters it makes, from a blind man to a nice baby, are stunningly rendered, with a mind-blowing realistic quality in the drawing and a clever conception of the narrative development and stunts. Those fingers do look like as they can feel basic emotions, they are drawn and animated as delicately as a face would be; splendid POV shots convey the problems they must navigate, setting the audience right into the heat of the action and making them feel the distress of this hand trying so intensely to reach its goal; they also contribute to the wider, more extraordinary effort to offer a fresh, stunning perspective on city life.

Fighting for survival and trying to reach its final destination: the hand that lost its body

There are other hands: the potty hand of a young kid on a beach, that same hand, a little thinner and stronger from a later time, when the kid tries to catch a fly, hits a piano keyboard or fumbles with a voice recorder. They can be shot in black and white or in colors; they introduce the main character, or rather at that point, the other main character besides that roaming hand, He is the smart and happy son of a couple of musicians from the Arab world – but his happiness is cut short by the sudden death of his loving parents.

These images are blended with the chronicle of a much older Naoufel, now a young man of around 20 living in Paris and wandering in the same kind of streets as the cut-off hand is racing through in its poignant odyssey. Naoufel is now an unhappy boy distant relatives have taken with them, quite ungraciously, and is striving to make ends meet, even though he is remarkably clumsy and inexpert in the trade in which he has managed to get a small position – pizza delivery.

One evening, after an accident, awfully late for his delivery, he ends up talking with his customer, a young woman named Gabrielle, through the entryphone of her skyscraper. Naoufel is so moved by her words and gentleness that he tries to meet her again thanks to the information she has given in their unexpected chat; but instead of just inviting her to a bar he tails her till he finds she takes care of an older relative who is a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Foolishly, he manages to secure a position of apprentice to move away from his own relatives and get closer to Gabrielle. It turns out he likes working wood but his life is still a bizarre maneuver to seduce a girl whom he fears would dismiss him, or just not remember him, if he tells the truth. Eventually he does, setting off a series of tragic events for himself. By then, the hand has reached its goal and then all the images the film has heaped up in a bold and puzzling manner find their rightful places in a wider narrative whose coherence relies on the tragedies that have befallen to Naoufel.

The body as memory: the film has been carefully built around this amazing and deeply poetic idea, subtly switching between various chronological orders till the events make sense and point to the painful fate of Naoufel. The hand, which could have well voiced the complaint giving the film its title (I lost my body), is actually the guide that helps the audience move through the maze-like narrative. This is also the only part of the story that unfolds in real-time and in the present – even Naoufel’s bittersweet love affair turns out to be another layer in the relation of his life. It brings the film to a final bold move, a deeply moving coda showing that all is not lost and that Naoufel can finds a path despite the relentless narrative arc of the film, the harrowing weight of fate.

Fate has indeed been a most powerful and cruel force behind Naoufel’s life. Catching a fly is not just a kid’s fantasy, the childish and naughty desire to play and kill animals: the recurring image of a fly becomes the mundane but queasy metaphor for the command of destiny that Naoufel, like many people, would like to master. The hand, as it struggles through the streets, crannies, nooks but also bustling animal and human life of the big city, is propelled by the need to overcome barriers seemingly impossible to get across, reflecting the desperate urge to defy together with a deeper, stronger, more poignant and moving yearning, to achieve completeness in the course of one’s life. The physical separation carries a deeper pain, the failure to reach out to the loved one and the impossibility to live with other people. The final challenge is to bridge this gap and to make life full again; the coda offers the most optimistic vision possible in the context, suggesting fate can be mastered. All is not lost.

Touching upon social issues in a discreet but deft way, from the challenges of the migrant to the exploitation of the modern economy, “J’ai perdu mon corps” is a most amazing and audacious portrait of a young man uprooted and upset, a searing vision of the lack of unity and happiness that easily undermines our lives, a radical exploration of the animation techniques to build a complex, harrowing but exciting narration fully conveying the stream of life and the sheer fragility of our bodies and souls. Bolstered by a wonderful music, which defines a soundtrack as intricate as the visual contents, which delicately blend 3D technology with 2D drawings, and fine acting, it is shaped by a genuinely poetic and highly empathetic vision of people and life, and it definitely stands as one of the finest examples of what animation can achieve.

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