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I Lost My Body: A Spoiler Filled Interview with Jérémy Clapin

Andrew Osmond writes for AFA:

Most people visiting a website called Animation for Adults must surely have some awareness of the film I Lost My Body, which debuted at Cannes in May 2019 and was swiftly acclaimed as one of the most extraordinary grown-up animated features ever. Hopefully, many of you will have seen it already. The film had a limited cinema release in the UK, and is now available to watch on the Netflix platform.

I Lost My Body is, indeed, the story of a “bodiless” protagonist, a severed human hand, crawling through the drains and crevices of Paris. It’s also the story of an orphaned youth, Naoufel, and his fumbling efforts to find a place in the city. For more about the film’s unique qualities, see Chris Perkins’ glowing review on this site.

Thanks to the PR company DDA, I had the chance to interview the film’s director Jérémy Clapin when he visited London at the end of November 2019. As the title warns, this interview involves MAJOR SPOILERS, as much of the discussion covers the film’s last scenes in detail. So if you haven’t seen the film yet, we encourage you to do so before reading the interview that follows!

I Lost My Body has two main narratives, the story of the hand and the story of the boy Naoufel. When you were developing the film, did you have different teams or people specialising on the two stories?

At the beginning of the project, you don’t know so much about the animators, so you try to learn a bit about them, about their skills. Two weeks after the start, you are able to identify which ones are more comfortable with the action sequences, so you maybe try to put them on the hand, and the ones who are more comfortable with acting, subtle acting, you put them on the (human) characters, so you adapt.

There are multiple credits on the film’s storyboards; were there artists specialising on the “hand” and “Naoufel” scenes at this point?
In fact there were not so many of us in storyboards, so we had to be involved in each “pass.” In fact, it was fun, more ludique, to jump from action sequences to romantic sequences, to be able to jump between different genres. 

Even in the flashback scenes with Naoufel, I found myself watching his hand so much. Often his scenes are framed so that you notice his hand.  [In his answer, Clapin refers to the film’s source book; the film was adapted from a novel called “Happy Hand” by Guillaume Laurant, who also co-wrote the live-action film Amélie.]

In fact, the big decision on the film was to choose the point of view of the hand. It was not the only point of view in the [source] book. It also had Naoufel’s point of view, following him without his hand, how he can adapt to the world. But I thought the unique concept of the book was the hand; I wanted to start the film with this point of view and keep it until the end. In the [crawling] hand scenes, it’s easy, but I didn’t want to forget the hand, so I needed to put in some elements of connection, of common history, with Naoufel, to spark a bit of “presence” for the hand when it is not only about the hand.

You never see Naoufel without the hand except on the last shot of the film. On all the other shots, it’s the hand which brings us to see Naoufel. Even when you see Naoufel without his hand, you are able to see him because the hand has come to the studio and we are looking at Naoufel through the “eye” of his hand. It’s only in the last shot when the hand sees Naoufel’s “rebirth” and steps back. Naoufel is free of something and we can see him for the first time without the presence of the hand.

You tested out some of the “human” scenes by having the voice-cast physically act them out in a real set. Can you give any examples of the little details you could pick up this way and use in the animation?

It’s hard because it’s all spread along the film. The shooting took seven days, and I was focused more on getting the final voice. I liked the fact that this situation will maybe bring me some improvisation. I was open to improvisation, to bring a fragility into animation, because most of the time animation is very control freakish, everything is planned. I was opening the door to this kind of fragility, to make the thing more authentic for me. But in fact, I don’t remember if there was one thing… I think it was spread all over the tone of the film.

The film appeals to the imagination. For example, there are two key sequences where one of the human characters cannot see the other; the intercom sequence and the film’s final moments.
Imagination can make people connect to another world; sometimes it’s stronger than the real world. It’s true, the last sequence is the reverse point-of-view of the intercom sequence. (In the intercom scene) Naoufel was below, listening to Gabrielle, and the end is the reverse where  Gabrielle is listening to Naoufel.

When people are made for each other, maybe they get connected in this area, the imagination. That’s what I like in this film… The last sequence, in fact, is a meeting of the past, the present and the future. Everything is together. When Gabrielle goes out into the snow, we are in the present; when she starts listening to Naoufel [on the tape recording], we are listening to the past; when the hand is “looking” to Naoufel, the hand is looking to the past when he was a boy… So there is a connection of full destiny, full temporality. I thought it was strong to finish with this kind of reunification at the end.


The film seems to say that there are memories that we need to reconnect with, such as Naoufel as a child on the beach; and there are also memories which we need to let go. I was struck by how, at the end, Naoufel records over the sounds of the car accident, which obsessed him in the film.
I think the hand represents a piece of Naoufel, his childhood, which got detached from him. It’s not only physical; it’s also a symbol of pieces of his memory. And at the end of the film, Naoufel has to erase, to integrate the loss of his parents. And that’s why he records [over the sound of the accident], because he wants to replace this accident with maybe another one, or a success, and in fact he replaces it with a success. [At this point in the film, Naoufel makes the death-defying leap from the rooftop to the crane, and lands safely.]

So it’s like changing the time, a rebirth. The snow [which Naoufel sees after his leap] starts to fall like a blank page, there’s a new thing to write.

I really like the way the film ends, but did you consider having any more indication of what will happen next? Obviously, viewers will be left wondering what Naoufel will do now, or if he will ever meet Gabrielle again.
Yes, I didn’t want to frustrate the public on that. But I had to make a decision; do I want to satisfy the romantic path for the public, or do I want to satisfy the purpose of the film? For me, we enter the film from the point-of-view of the hand, and we discover Naoufel’s character through the hand. And when the hand retreats, the rest doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to the future – and now Naoufel can have a future.

I tried in many versions to satisfy the two paths, but it was not working; it was like the one (kind of) discerning was hitting the other, there was no strength. I need this kind of frustration to make the other (side) even bigger. 

So did you consider different concluding scenes?

Yes, at one time I tried to make Naoufel appear behind Gabrielle, but I really thought it was not artistically convincing. I just felt, “Why am I doing this?”; killing the other end with that. I preferred people to stay with a question. It’s open, like Naoufel is; there are many questions in front of him.

I was also thinking about danger in the film. The hand is in a very dangerous situation from the start, while Naoufel seems attracted to danger, wanting to jump across the deadly space to the crane.
I think the film pushes the fact that if you want to change your destiny, you cannot do nothing; you have to act, to make a sidestep, to ripple the water. It’s a kind of extreme in the film. In his life, Naoufel used to be very contained, he never speaks loudly, we feel he’s always (closed) on himself. That’s why when he screams at the end [in triumph], it’s like a release for everyone. It has to come out, we feel good about that. I think the film illustrates this kind of action you need to do in the present to change the future. You cannot just do a little sidestep; if you do that, you will come back to the same place.

As you may know, some reviewers did not like Naoufel, because he’s a…

A stalker. (sighs) It’s a society question, but if we starts putting this kind of things on a romance story… I’m talking about cinema. Naoufel is awkward, maladroit, a bit confused. He’s not the master of himself when he starts following Gabrielle. He’s involved in something above him. It’s not something planned, and also at the end of the film, he’s not rewarded.

On screen, crawling severed hands tend to be either evil or comic. Were you inspired by any print stories or novels from the viewpoint of non-human creatures?
There was the film Rubber by Quentin Dupieux, the story of a criminal tyre which comes to life and starts killing animals. When I saw the film, it could bring life to a tyre so I thought I would be able to bring life to a hand… The way Dupieux shot the tyre, he used the sound, the contact of the materials on the tyre to make it exist. In fact we don’t have a lot of options to make such a character exist, so we need to push a lot on the ones we get. I have to overcome the fact that the hand doesn’t have an expression. 

You’ve spoken about how the severed hand is feminine, though I’m sure many Freudians would disagree! So you do regard the hand as female?

Yes, and when I thought about [giving the hand a] voice-over, I was thinking about a female voice. Because I didn’t want the hand to be a reduced part of Naoufel, I wanted it to behave as a full character. When Naoufel is a delivery boy, he’s completely stuck in his life, doing nothing, no action, and the hand represents the opposite of that. It’s something which doesn’t want to belong to the past, something that wants to be in the present, and to bring the future of Naoufel at the end.

Can you talk more about why you considered giving the hand a voice?
In the book, the hand is talking and it’s easy, when someone is talking, to tell (the audience) a lot of things, you can take a lot of shortcuts with a voice-over. But when I started doing this, it wasn’t productive. I wanted to get the audience involved into the hand’s point of view, into the action. When I started making the voice-over, it kills this kind of sensation, that we are in the action. If something is telling you things, it makes a distance.

I thought about a female voice, but the voice was much stronger than the hand, the character was more the voice than the hand. I tried to cheat, by making the voice not the hand’s voice… I tried making the fly the teller of the hand’s story, because the fly represents destiny and it was like destiny looking to the hand. But it was a mess (laughs), it was not working. Simplicity is the best solution!

The action scenes involving the hand reminded me of a couple of animated films from decades ago, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, which pitted animals against nature. Were they an influence on you?

No. Was this a strange and dark movie? Someone told me a few months ago; I have the poster, I have to see it!

Obviously there are some kids’ animated films that have some fairly scary, grotesque images. I found myself wondering if it might have been possible to make a version of I Lost My Body that would have been suitable for younger viewers. Instead, you have a scene early on where Neofuel disturbs two characters having sex, as if to confirm this is an adult film.

I wanted the audience watching the film to be in a more “chaotic” perception. If I show a pigeon dying [in the opening scenes], if I show sex, I start to show the audience that this film can go this far, so they can be prepared. It’s an adult movie; I did not want to constrain myself with lovely pictures. It has to be brittle, it has to be real life, with emotional moments, but the next shot will be another genre. I wanted all this because the concept of the film legitimises this kind of play with different genres.

Also, because you are doing animation, you have to prove to people… Maybe in ten or twenty years, we will be able to make animation for adults without (including) sex and violence, but I’m printing my territory with that, in a way. 

Regarding Naoufel’s accident when he is trying to kill the fly, were you thinking at all of the episode in the TV crime series Breaking Bad where the protagonist becomes obsessed with catching a fly?

I think I’ve seen the episode, but I had already written the story of the fly. But my film has a lot of references; for example, at the beginning where the eyeball “watches” the hand wake up. The eyeball represents a witness inside the film, who’s able to watch something and make it exist. I realised that in Alien, there’s the same kind of situation where the starship wakes up and there’s a shot of a helmet, implying something is looking at something inside the movie, making things exist.

I love the moment where the man steps on the eyeball.

That was just to show someone fail, the eyeball. The film won’t be the story of the eyeball, but of the other character, the hand.

In the past, you’ve mentioned the Japanese animation director Satoshi Kon, and his films Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers. Was the influence mainly from the urban backgrounds, or was it also the movement between times and places in his films?

It’s funny; I really like Satoshi Kon, but I saw Millennium Actress very late, after my film. I realised how close it was in terms of editing (though) Kon was playing with editing much more, very well. But I had Tokyo Godfathers in mind concerning how to treat the town, because Kon was showing the Tokyo of homeless people, not the “touristic” Tokyo. It was the same kind of thing for me, viewing Paris from the point of view of something very close to the pavement, a dark area.

I like this way to shoot the city; and also, for me, it’s more powerful when you succeed to bring poetry into something that doesn’t allow poetry so much. If you succeed there, it’s even stronger. 

Are there any other films, live-action or animated, which helped you create the Paris of I Lost My Body?
I didn’t want to go to the Amélie Paris, but the opposite way. Amelie was a non-reference for me.

I was wondering about the 1995 live-action film La Haine…
Yes, La Haine, but I used to live in the suburbs. When you see Paris in films, most of the time, there are no cranes, everything is clean, but it’s not the Paris I know. In my suburb, everything is under construction, it’s never finished, it’s organic, there are cranes all over the horizon…. So I wanted to give a more realistic perception of Paris.

Which suburb did you grow up in?

It was in the south of Paris, not a bad suburb, Issy-les-Moulineaux and Malakoff. But you do not belong to Paris and you’re not completely out. I like this kind of symbol, to not be part of something.

Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away, 100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net.