Giovanna Fumia

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If you expect plain entertainment from an animated film, you should question yourself, especially if the animation is aimed at an adult audience. This article is not a review but an interdisciplinary interpretation conversing with literature, film criticism, and with semiotics. It is an attempt to keep track of the image through expressive words. An analytical look, ready to grasp cinema details, quotations, internal references. Hopefully this work will contribute to the identification, or even the construction, of further meanings. Reading cinema through literature is more than a divertissement, it is the need for expanding still-image with writing. Whether you’re an occasional spectator or a keen enthusiast, it doesn’t matter. You can follow in the footsteps of this attempt, which does not go in but barely touches. Accepting suggestions or refusing them: the choice is yours.

The first encounter between animated cinema and literature in the movie happens behind the scenes, at the feature film screenplay, which was freely adapted from the novel Happy Hand (2006) by Guillame Laurant, already known as Amélie’s screenwriter. 81 minutes of «romanticism and action»[1] ̶ as the Parisian animator called them ̶ met a fully positive reception from critics. Jérémy Clapin’s full-length-film debut doesn’t go unnoticed, so much so that he was awarded prestigious prizes (after his winning at the Cannes Festival, he got prizes at the Cesar and the Lumières Awards) and nominations (such as an Oscar-nomination at the Academy Awards 2020).

J’ai perdu mon corps, I lost my body, Dov’è il mio corpo? The proverbial expression “translating is a bit like betraying” is always valid. The title I lost my body dilutes the semantic density of the original one in French, a density that is all concentrated in the verb perdu. And this is not only a formal pedantry: it is an irreducible loss, a mutilation, physical and existential, that triggers the narrative device.

With a mixture of 3D and 2D, J’ai perdu mon corps tells a bloody quest. Two tales, chronologically free-standing, that progressively intersect and, at the end, unite. Naoufel’s childhood and the underground adventures of an atypical protagonist: a mutilated hand.  Escaping from the cold room of a dissection lab is the beginning of a daring escape.

Through a narrative device that the Russian formalist Viktor Borisovič Šklovskij called for the first time ostranenie, the director subtracts the viewer from «the automatism of perception»[2]. Through the expedient of estrangement – verfremdung for Bertold Brecht ̶ the anthropomorphic hand lives high lyrical moments. Slowly sliding its fingers, it sits on the windowsill. The danger is now left behind and the hand can contemplate the Paris roofs from above, which tastes of freedom. In front of it, an unexplored urban space to take the first steps. So a surreal journey begins  ̶ a dejavu  ̶  across the roofs, the slums, the landfills of Paris. What’s the final destination?  Its own lost body.

Hence, an underground railway station becomes the setting of a territorial fight with rats, in full Far West style. The dispute is resolved thanks to the chance of a random weapon: the lighter, still working, dropped to the ground by a passer-by. «When I’m paid, I always follow my job through. You know that», Naoufel will later say, faking a gunshot with the right-hand gesture. It’s a quote from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) directed by Sergio Leone, that’s Naoufel’s favourite movie. Who knows if Clapin has a penchant for westerns… However, the journey of the mutilated hand follows horizontal and vertical space trajectories: almost an animated Bildungsroman[3].

«I never said it was easy. You can’t win every time. That’s life». The other growth ̶ whether irreparably interrupted or belatedly achieved – the spectators will decide ̶  is that of a guy little more than teenager.

Naoufel is the clumsy delivery-boy of Fast Pizza, who moved from Rabat to Paris after the death of his parents. Of that death, Naoufel feels all the tragic load. Guilt haunts him, grips him, stings him, like the fly that obsessively returns and belongs to a memory. A childhood memory, the first of many black-and-white throwback moments: a child trying to catch a fly in vain.

In the mnemonic process, a great importance is assigned to visual and sound perceptions. The ways in which Naoufel’s childhood is recalled throw the viewer to an atmosphere that perhaps owes a tribute to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. It looks like worthy suggesting an implicit literary reference since there is not shortage of explicit ones. The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving is Gabrielle’s favourite novel: the work of the American author who inspired George Roy Hill’s film by the same name, with Robin Williams. A novel about feminism, sex and a fatal car crash. A father oppressed by guilt of his son’s death. It is not difficult to identify in the plot of the novel a situation mirrored to that of Naoufel. And again, in the Parisian library called Guy De Maupassant, the guy borrows Planète Pile Nord: Récit d’une expédition by Tom Laffines[4] and the work of Clarisse Doyle: actually fictitious titles.

But there are also secondary characters on which the existential condition of eternal childhood is reflected. Naoufel, an unwelcome guest, shares a cramped bedroom in Paris with a distant cousin. Its walls are covered with posters: race cars, women, boxing (a keen observer might spot the poster of Rocky Balboa). A stereotype of machismo that inhibits the boy’s growth, sensitive but introverted and apathetic. Unable to self-determine because he is burdened with an unspeakable guilt: the fly that returns obsessively and that he has never caught. Suggestive of which is that, after working with delivery food, he decides to do an apprenticeship in a carpentry workshop. A clumsy attempt to be that homo faber that existence has foreclosed on him.

The lack of identification with a male model and the encounter with the female figure who is ever delayed. The first contact is a sonic perception, a voice from the intercom, distant and unattainable as the echo of the maternal voice. An epiphanic voice that causes a desire to escape from the mechanical routine, from those alienating gestures that are consumed in an indifferent, cynical, disfigured, addicted Paris. But that’s Paris: a mother that throws that foreign body out of its womb.

So this dismemberment becomes the physical transposition of an irreversible loss. It becomes the pot crack that ruthless mechanical time of the clock does not hold in consideration. But dismemberment claims an extreme need: to mend himself, because the only possible awareness comes from loss. Therefore, growth cannot be accomplished without the face of mutilation. Naoufel waits for a “dribbling”: something that wards off fate and allows him to change its fate , to emancipate himself from fatalism that holds him captive in a prepubescent body. And that dribbling finally comes. And it’s another mutilation.


[1] https://cineuropa.org/it/video/372727/rdID/371234

[2] Reference from G. Kraiski, Introduzione a I formalisti russi nel cinema, G. Kraiski, Milan 1971

[3] Letteralmente, “coming-of-age story”. It refers to a literary genre focusing on the psychological development of the main character and, in particular, the rite of passage marking the border line between childhood and adulthood (not to be intended as biological terms but psycho-emotional). The german word is hard to translate because in implies in itself not only the idea of process (of personal development) but also the result of the action (the achievement of a higher self-awareness). For a first approach to the Bildungsroman we suggest to read about in following link: https://www.bwtraduzioni.it/che-cose-il-romanzo-di-formazione-o-bildungsroman/

[4] https://cinematic-literature.tumblr.com/post/190109425387/jai-perdu-mon-corps-2019-by-j%C3%A9r%C3%A9my-clapin-book

Further readings

https://cineuropa.org/it/film/371234/

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/nov/24/i-lost-my-body-review-french-animation-jeremy-clapin-severed-hand

https://www.gqitalia.it/show/article/i-lost-my-body-netflix-recensione

https://quinlan.it/2019/06/03/jai-perdu-mon-corps/

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