Claude Barras’ My Life as a Zucchini opens on Icare (who would really prefer you call him Zucchini), a nine-year old with tired eyes and a star on his shirt, having a morning of arts and crafts in a cramped Parisian apartment. His mother, whose drinking problem provides him with beer cans he keeps as treasures, is downstairs cursing at the TV in a drunken stupor. When she hears the crash of falling beer cans, she investigates: climbing the stairs to his room, bellowing as she goes. He, terrified, shuts his door and – in the blink of an eye – she is caught off balance, falling to her death. Though it mostly occurs off camera, it’s a horrible (and horribly bold) opening for a stop motion animation feature, understandably billed by the director as “a childhood film not a children’s film.” Adapted from Gilles Paris’s children’s book Autobiographie d’Une Courgette by Girlhood writer/director Céline Sciamma, My Life as a Zucchini combines Sciamma’s trademark emotional fluidity with Barras’ predilection for comic eccentricity, the product a fascinating venture in social realism. Little hero Zucchini’s travails are illustrated with a compassion and deferential gaze that has been compared to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Whereas Truffaut honed misfit youth through Antione Doinel’s ruptured monologues and persistent alienation, Barras and Sciamma rely instead on a multiplicity of dynamic voices and stories, instilling the film with a lasting sense of respect and camaraderie.
After his mother’s death, Zucchini is moved to Fontaine Children’s Home by a policeman named Raymond (voiced by Nick Offerman in the English language dub), who serves as a kindly father-figure. The children Zucchini meets at Fontaine’s are from equally challenging circumstances; they articulate their own backgrounds in the dialogue of rapid schoolyard chants. These comprehensions of trauma even struck me as strategic, as though providing a young audience with a vocabulary with which to navigate challenging issues. The children have frank discussions about sex, mental illness, drug use, sexual assault and, surprisingly, refugees. Zucchini’s chic crush Camille, who can shoot a gun, comes from a family of fatal domestic violence. There is a sense of safety throughout, though, encouraging emotional connection with characters without then threatening to brutalise them.
Zucchini is a departure from the spooky fantasies of Barras’ early work like Land of the Heads, his 2009 plasticine animation in which a moon serenades an accordion-playing monkey in a tree after a killing spree. His debut feature is visually poetic but much more naturalistic. The characters have Barras’s trademark gaunt faces, but the director balances them on goofy bodies with stringy arms and legs; many a time a joke punchline is hit home by some comic wobbling or flailing. Using ten-inch puppets handcrafted with a variety of materials including resin, painted latex foam “hair,” opaque silicone and fabric for clothing, the world created by Barras is fully realised and intricately constructed. Textures abound in a scene in which Zucchini sculpts “snow,” made of heavy felted fabric to form a snowman’s head, seamlessly highlighting the elaborate material reality of stop animation shooting. Raymond may drive a rudimentary cardboard car sprung from infantile art, but a second later we conspiratorially spy Camille’s mean aunt upskirt through the slats of a staircase in a delightful pivot of perspective. In a sequence drained of diegetic colour — with stylistic similarities to Oogie Boogie’s song from Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas — Camille and Zucchini ride with Raymond in a ghost train, Barras manipulating light to play with depth and shadow as bats, ghosts and a glaring red light zoom past.
The filmmakers certainly don’t shy away from the jarring nature of these classic childhood fears, but there is a sense, as the children and Raymond laugh, of the uselessness of phobia. Anxieties are portrayed through events that fall outside of one’s control, rather than the end product of ultimately manageable petty fears. Sciamma has said of this approach “[children] are clever and you can talk to them about hard things because they share the same world, and you know that.” It is as though Barras and Sciamma are hunkered on their knees, eye-to-eye with their young audience. Sciamma’s previous films (Waterlilies, Tomboy, Girlhood) and her screenplay for last year’s Being 17 certainly play with this accessibility through daring subject matter, the writer/director stating she continually thinks about her audience when writing. I’m moved to consider her work in the realms of writers like Viola Di Grado or Durga Chew-Bose due to their shared determination to affirm something quite present – to take a stand by confronting “difficult” issues with nuance and sophisticated fiction– positions that work almost as correctives for our present political epoch.
Through these tiny characters no bigger than your hand, Sciamma and Barras accomplish something beautiful with simplicity; they celebrate love and shared intimacy as a resistance, as a rebellion, as “punk.” During a disco the children dance to “Eisbaer” (literally “polar bear”) by New Wave Swiss outfit Grauzone instead of say, something by whatever the French version of The Wiggles is. As the group sways cheerfully to the disaffected cult lullaby the effect is surprisingly invigorating, like a musical cast breaking into song for dramatic crescendo, affirming what Sciamma has termed “the choreography of friendship.” To love someone is to allow them space to express themself, to respect their voice and make them feel heard. As the silver disco ball flashes over the children enthusiastically gyrating to Grauzone’s post punk shout on isolation, fear and frustration, there is the sense that Barras and Sciamma and by virtue we, are truly listening.