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I Lost My Body (2019)

I Lost My Body (original title J'ai Perdu Mon Corps) arrives to general audiences on a wave of considerable acclaim. Having wowed the festival circuit, the film was the first animated winner of Cannes' Critics' Week Grand Prize.  It also won the Grand Prize at Hollywood's Animation is Film Festival, as well as both the Best Feature and Audience Award at Annecy. So you could say that expectations were set pretty high.

I Lost My Body is the feature directorial debut of Jeremy Clapin. The screenplay was written by Clapin alongside Guillaume Laurant, a frequent collaborator with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and author of the novel Happy Hand, on which the film is based. It began streaming on Netflix on November 29, 2019. Animation was produced by Xilam Animation.

"You haven't seen anything like this before" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot by eager PR copywriters and hyperbolic critics. But in the case of I Lost My Body it's very much true. This is one of the most unique films you'll see this year, animated or otherwise.

The film's high concept idea is it is the story of a severed, disembodied head that breaks out of a lab in Paris, and sets off on a desperate search to find its body. This is intercut with scenes following young adult Naoufel, who we quickly ascertain is the owner in question. We follow Naoufel (still in possession of two working hands) from his happy early childhood with his loving parents, through to being taken to live with other members of his family following his parents' death. Now in young adulthood, his life in the Parisian suburbs (Banlieues) is looking pretty grim. After falling in love with a young librarian called Gabrielle he risks everything to try to reconnect with her.

The hand's journey provides the film's biggest draw. It scuttles along in a manner familiar from Thing in The Addams Family. It crosses the city across rooftops, at ground level, through Metro stations and other locations we don't normally see from such an angle. It creates a fantastic sense of scale: at this size normally harmless city dwellers such as pigeons, rats and guide dogs become potentially deadly foes. Even ants become a problem.

These sequences are masterfully executed. Exhilarating, ingenious and often very funny, they're something that could only be done in animation. Without a word of dialogue, the hand is given enough character, pluck and determination that you'll be cheering it along all the way.

These scenes are also the most technically impressive in the film. I Lost My Body has a hand-drawn look, with a sketchy style that could come off the page of a French graphic novel (bande dessin). In fact though, much of it is animated using 3D CG software, allowing it to move from 2D to more dynamic camerawork. This is used to brilliantly depict events from the hand's perspective, or at ground level in the chase scenes. It's proof that far from killing it, digital technology allows hand-drawn animation to reach new heights.

At the same time, it is the parallel scenes that are the film's heart. Naoufel is an instantly sympathetic protagonist. Not only as a young orphan, but also as a downtrodden young man. His character design plays into this, with his oversized glasses and gangly build giving him the look of a deer caught in headlights.

His actions to pursue Gabrielle are a bit stalker-ish, but to its credit, the film doesn't just brush over this. Gabrielle is a very down-to-earth character and not at all the manic pixie dream-girl type. She's understandably cautious of Naoufel when he first arrives, and the film avoids typical movie romance style cliches.

The Paris we see here is one rarely seen on screen- and even more rare in animation. Graffiti strewn, run-down districts full of concrete tower blocks and dingy backstreets- it's clear this hasn't been sponsored by the Parisian tourist board. How often do you see a Paris-set film that doesn't ever show the Eifel Tower?

The time the story takes place in is also not entirely clear. The cassettes and walkman that Naoufel clings to as a connection with his past are dated technology- but could be a relic from his past. A calendar briefly glimpsed seems to place it in the early  90s, but a DVD player is also seen- and that technology wasn't widely adopted until post the turn of the millennium.

Clapin constructed the film as a puzzle, a mystery to be unlocked.  For much of the time it's unclear what it is exactly what we are watching. Are these flashbacks that the hand is remembering? Or are the hand's sequences just the dreams of a troubled young man? If you're expecting a definitive answer though- this isn't that kind of film.

It all only adds to the film's unique flavour, an urban fairytale that mixes the gritty everyday with the fantastic to dizzying effect. It's definitely the case that this is not going to be for everyone. For some, it will be just too weird and esoteric to be able to connect to.

Netflix offers a variety of audio options to suit all tastes, but it's probably best appreciated in its original French-language version. It's not a very wordy film but it just feels somehow very distinctly French. And if you're lucky enough to chance upon one of the rare cinema screenings, you should absolutely jump at the chance.

It's incredible to think that this is Clapin's feature debut, with the director arriving in fully rounded form as a distinctive voice. Technically flawless and deftly told, I Lost My Body is a true original.


IN A NUTSHELL:  An astonishing, one-of-a-kind experience that only animation could achieve.  Hands down one of the films of the year