Review: I Lost My Body

Distributor: Rézo Films

Director: Jérémy Clapin

Writers: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant

Composer: Dan Levy

Starring: (French) Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d’Assumçao (English) Dev Patel, Alia Shawkat, George Wendt

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Animation

I’ve heard tales that amputees can often “feel” their missing limbs as though they’re still attached.  I’ve often entertained various humorous implications from that sensation in my youth, most involving inappropriate violations of others’ privacy.  Jérémy Clapin entertains and engages us with a somber look into a young man who’s been torn asunder in ways more than just physically.  Suffice it to say for now, the shenanigans left me more bemused than amused.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Some bloody and disturbing animated images: A human hand is severed in an accident; a bird is strangled; a rolling eyeball is squished; rats face death by fire. Blood splatters in multiple scenes. A boy on a bike is hit by a car. Fatal car accident. A fist fight in a bar.

Language/Crude Humor: Profanity and swearing includes “f***,” “s***,” “crap,” “pissed off,” “a**hole,” “g**damn.”

Sexual Content: In a brief shot, characters are interrupted during sex. Drawing of a penis.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A sequence in a bar shows a young man drinking to excess out of sadness and frustration. Characters smoke cigarettes; a cigar.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Themes: Overall thematic miasma of existentialist dread.

Positive Content:  Shows the courage, determination, and resourcefulness necessary to become whole after tragedy. Cleverly, and with compassion, portrays the renewal of hope, spirit, and heart.

A severed hand (the movie’s “hero”) is brave, resourceful, and driven to succeed at all costs. Another leading character slowly finds his way to move forward after all seems lost.

Review

Back in 1939, famed author J.R.R. Tolkien surmised that the particular literary genre of the fairy-story became associated exclusively with children’s entertainment as “an accident of our domestic history”.  He called to attention that there was nothing inherently childish about such tales, and that they became relegated to the youth in much the same way as old unwanted furniture or clothing gets relegated to the nursery.  There is some helpful insight to that observation.  Many of the classic fairy-tales in the Brothers Grimm collection would cause most folks today to reel in horror at the grotesquery of it all were it to be depicted wholesale and unironically.

The lesser-known device of magical realism has provided something of a reentry point into the elements of fantastical fiction that many once took for granted.  When unassumingly juxtaposed alongside more immediately recognizable plot elements into the framework of an otherwise conventional and even serious-minded drama, the more otherworldly suggestions will most likely register as surreal—perhaps even disorienting, depending on the viewer’s level of openness.  Whatever the case, this approach has an uncanny capacity to imbue otherwise mundane circumstances with a resonance of intrigue that may far more easily carry on after the viewing is complete than the sight of an actual fairy or some spectacles of magic dust might ever accomplish.

Jérémy Clapin dares to tread some unusual grounds in I Lost My Body; a meditative modern fairy-tale of a young man who is ruined and left stranded in a world that neither knows nor cares about him.  Naoufel (Hakim Faris in French, Dev Patel in English) began his story with high hopes and dreams and a loving family that supported his endeavors as an aspiring pianist and astronaut.  The Naoufel we see over the majority of the picture is the hollowed husk of that vibrant spirit.  When I first left this film, I went away with a bitter taste in my mouth, feeling as though I just needlessly indulged the pretentious meanderings of self-absorbed hipsters.  A second viewing gave me a more sympathetic view.

It feels, in a way, wrong to give much focus to Naoufel himself.  There’s little gratification in being attentive to a protagonist who is, more or less, a barely functioning zombie at first.  Besides, both the title and what could be said to be the most intense and captivating segments all focus more on Naoufel’s severed right hand rather the man himself.  As the reviewer David Ehrlich at IndieWire noted, the film is titled I Lost My Body, not I Lost My Hand.

It is not only in the choice of magical realism that Clapin boasts avant-garde aims and flourishes.  He and co-writer, Guillaume Laurant, opt for a chronologically unconventional structure as well, with the bleak and morose story of Naoufel’s eventual loss of limb, and the limb’s hazardous and labyrinthine ordeal with traversing the cityscape in search of its owner.  Naoufel suffered a terrible tragedy at a young age that took both his parents’ lives, leaving him to slog about as a failing pizza delivery boy with an uncaring uncle and an unscrupulous cousin for company.  His hand begins its journey in a medical refrigerator, soon to embark on a trek involving a curious pigeon (that it strangles), a pack of hungry rats (that it fends off with a lighter), and lots of high falls.

The device of magical realism, like traditional magic, allows storytellers to let their eccentric ideas carry the plot without much in the way of explanation being needed.  The same is true here, but you may find yourself dancing with odd questions regarding the mechanics of the hand’s sensory matrix, dear reader.  How does it read what’s going on about it?  It seems that its sole sense is touch, and that’s all it has to determine direction, threat, and danger.  Certain shots seem to suggest a type of “sight”, but it may be best not to think too hard about it.

As for Naoufel’s trek, much like his severed appendage, the poor guy is also desperately grasping about for something solid for his soul to hold onto.  He gets a hint of someone who offers at least a kind—if not a helping—hand during yet another one of his botched pizza deliveries.  In one of the most engrossing character moments I saw all last year, Naoufel encounters some semblance of human connection in his miasma of detachment in the form of a young woman named Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois in French, Alia Shawkat in English).  The two are separated from each other by only an intercom and a malfunctioning apartment door, and what was originally meant as a casual exchange of goods and services turns into a much-needed bit of soulful human interaction.

“Any port in a storm” seems to be the modus operandi for all concerned here.  Naoufel, Gabrielle, and the other characters dotting the margins carry themselves as existentially anchorless.  Anything that seems even remotely orderly or validating immediately becomes their sole aim for being.  Seeking out the mysterious Gabrielle is Naoufel’s raison d’être from this moment on, and he goes to some incredibly innovative and desperate lengths to meet her in person and earn her favor.  These undertakings prove both precipitous in their conception and gratifying in their results, edging the young would-be lover closer and closer to his destination.  What he finds when he gets there is a matter he ignores to the point of annihilation.

Much could be said of the crawling extremity stopping at nothing to reunite with its host.  The world through the “eyes” of the hand is merciless, uncaring, and dismissive.  On many an occasion, the hand is mistaken for a piece of debris, vermin, or something to devour.  Naoufel feels himself to be critically misunderstood in much the same manner.  His uncle regards him as little more than a living piece of unwanted furniture.  His cousin sees him as a naïve sapling with no reason to live.  Gabrielle initially sees him as a charmingly mysterious soul, and then mistakes him as a menacing predator during a critical moment much later in the film.  How Naoufel finds some semblance of meaning in all of this antagonism is something that took me a while to understand.  I may need to watch over it again to fully grasp it.

Naoufel’s father gave some insight in an early flashback about how to catch a fly.  He says the way to do this is to come at it from the side and go to where it will be, rather than where it is, outwitting its instinctive motion.  This comes as a motif throughout Naoufel’s struggle with what he believes to be fate.  In many moments of defeat, it seems as though fate comes to mock him in the form of a fly.  Though disillusioned with his own capabilities, the young man appears to find a way to claim some mastery over the hand of fate during a pensive moment with Gabrielle.  Even this, he finds out, comes at a terrible cost.

The art direction and animation were something that initially was a turn off, but I’ve come to understand that the crudely caricatured aesthetic is a stroke of brutal honesty.  Against the more photorealistic renderings of the backdrops and cityscapes, the characters do often feel “out of place” to a degree, and this reflects their own unmoored attitudes about themselves and others.  Sometimes, less is more, and this is a dimly shining example of that principle.

I’ve been realizing for some time now that the French have been seriously holding out on me with their stellar animated productions.  The 2013 concept album adaptation, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, was probably the last straw.  I’m grateful that Netflix is one platform that is able to experiment with these types of works that most other viewers leave behind.  Against the grindingly generic tide of animated feature releases happening stateside, I Lost My Body stands out boldly, if still quietly.  Most regular filmgoers would probably mistake it for an awkward attempt at an origin story for the Addams’ Family character Thing T. Thing.  I hope that’s just my cynicism talking, though.

Tyrone Barnes

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