If I Lost My Body is the sound of one hand clapping, then it announces Jérémy Clapin with thunderous applause. The French animator gives audiences an enchanting shot of magical realism in I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps). The film, which won the Grand Prix at the Semaine de la Critique at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, offers a must-see alternative to the overblown fairy tales and dancing snowmen that populate many animated films these days.
Clapin ingeniously brings to life the story of a severed hand that traverses Paris in search of its body. Aside from the disembodied hand that continues to thrive, I Lost My Body plants its feet in reality. “It’s a fantastic eruption in a real world,” explains Clapin. “It allows me to talk about things which would be really difficult [otherwise]. The fantastic element also allows you to explore themes in ways you can’t if it’s only realistic.”
As the hand ventures around Paris, the film offers flashbacks of his owner, Naoufel. (Hakim voices Naoufel in the French original, while Dev Patel lends his talents to the English soundtrack.) The young boy, seen with his complete hand, seeks his place in the world. Naoufel struggles with various jobs while falling in love with Gabrielle, a young woman he meets while delivering a pizza. The two stories explore our desire for connection and the things we need to feel complete.
Images of a severed hand scurrying around the city might evoke memories of Thing in The Addams Family. But Clapin says he made a point of avoiding references to the family Addams. “That hand [Thing] is always using five fingers while running as a spider or addressing humans like a mime,” explains Clapin. “In the film, in the hand is not talking to humans. It’s not trying to communicate with humans. We avoided having the hand do the same things as a human. It is a hand. It was really fun to invent the hand’s own way to walk, to move to, and to exist.” The film sees the hand create its own corporeal language as it discovers its dexterity and mobility. After all, the journey is the hand’s first time venturing into the wold alone.
Body and Skhizein
I Lost My Body is a natural extension of Clapin’s short films, which similarly play with reality and fantasy. Producer Marc Du Pontavice points to Clapin’s short film Skhizein as an example that inspired him to tap the director for his first feature. “In animation, you usually try to pull some reality out of the fantasy,” says Du Pontavice. “In that case, I wanted exactly the other way around where fantasy comes from reality.”
There are echoes of Skhizein in I Lost My Body as Naoufel and his hand learn how to swat a fly by anticipating its moves. The action mirrors Skhizein’s running gag in which a man is one step off from the rest of the world. He learns to bridge the gap by performing each action one foot to the side of its target object. The dose of magical realism shows the auteur’s ingenuity connecting both works.
From Page to Screen
“In Jérémy’s shorts, especially Skhizein, fantasy and reality do not co-exist in a contradictory way, but as things that belongs to one another,” observes Du Pontavice. “I really love that angle, especially because in the book, the hand misses the body. It’s not the body missing the hand. That metaphor generates something very troubling and very interesting.”
The book to which Du Pontavice refers is Happy Hand by Guillaume Laurent, best known as the screenwriter of Amélie. Clapin says the esteemed writer had no problem letting the director put his own spin on the story. “Guillaume is mostly known as a screenwriter,” says Clapin. Drawing upon Laurent’s own experience adapting novels like Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement for the screen, Clapin says he had liberty to inject the story with his own sensibilities. “Guillaume knows how you have to betray the book when you want to make a film. It was my duty to be the man who betrayed the book. I cannot ask Guillaume to betray his own book.” Without the aid of dialogue of prose, Clapin gives the hand life by accentuating the sensorial elements of its journey.
The Sounds of the City
One notable distinction between the novel and its adaptation is the role of sound. Clapin harnesses the aural elements of film as well as the visuals to immerse the audience in the hand/Naoufel’s world. “I had to give all my sensibilities to the hand’s tactile approach to the world,” explains Clapin. “That meant I needed to find something equal for Naoufel. I put him in contact with sound.” Naoufel approaches the world through sound by recording the noises of the city. Jumping atop buildings, dangling from cranes, and hanging from windows, he finds poetry in the whirs and hums of life. He listens to these recordings while alone and connects with the world from which he feels alienated.
Clapin adds that Naoufel’s habit of recording and interacting with sound also gives the hand a role in the flashbacks. The hand is an active part of Naoufel as it holds his microphone to capture the sounds of life. Similarly, Gabrielle teaches Naoufel to drown out the noise and be present in the moment. The hand covers Naoufel’s ear and lets the boy connect to Gabrielle through silence.
Scoring the Film
The sounds of the city blur imperceptibly with the innovative musical score by Dan Levy. (No relation to the Schitt’s Creek star/creator.) Clapin says the process of scoring I Lost My Body was unconventional for an animated film. “Dan came in during the animatic tests [rough sketches and storyboards], so the picture was not of use to read,” explains Clapin. The director says he asked Levy to project the animation with his imagination, as opposed to scoring a locked picture.
“I wanted his music to raise quotidian situations into something very cosmic and mystical,” adds Clapin. “The film takes place in the suburbs; the dark city. We are very close to the pavement, so it’s realistic and the purpose of the music is to bring these spaces up to the level of a tale. Dan does this very well with the mix of naturalistic elements and electronic instruments that were mixed with the sound design.”
A Live Action Approach to Animation
I Lost My Body also evokes the everyday world through the unconventional production process behind the animation. Rather than merely voice their characters, Clapin and Du Pontavice say the actors participated in live action shoots. “Animation often tends towards kids and families, and is very much based on fantasy, like animals talking,” says Du Pontavice. “Most of the time, the actors deliver something extreme. We needed something more subtle, definitely less extreme, and almost underplayed.”
Instead of filming actors performing while they deliver dialogue into a microphone, the filmmakers explain how they favoured a live shoot. They describe a seven-day shoot with actors playing scenes on a fully equipped set before a camera. “We knew we had to find a distinct methodology because subtlety in acting is mostly obtained by body language and not only the voice alone,” observes Du Pontavice. “What you obtain through that methodology of the live shoot is a performance that is far more subtle, far more fragile. Actors give you something with a lot of finesse that you don’t usually get in a typical bar performance.”
Clapin observes that this approach further injected realism into his characters. “You cannot open the door to improvisation in animation,” explains the director. “But the only space I could give to improvisation was during shooting. I wanted the actors to be able to deliver natural performances with some accidents and unpredictable things. Then the animation could open up the fragility reality and play with it.”
The director says it was also fun to imagine a world mere inches from the ground. I Lost My Body envisions an alternate side of Paris from the hand’s point of view. “Because we used CG [computer-generated] space, we were about to change the camera angle often,” explains Clapin. “When I was shooting the hand, it was not about how the hand moved. It was about how the camera tells the story. How do I get closer to the tip of the finger without showing too much of the environment? It’s not only about what the camera is showing. Most of the time, it’s about what the camera is not showing.”
Crawling through the streets of Paris from the hand’s perspective is often a disorienting experience. The journey evokes the same desire for connection that Naoufel seeks in his story. It’s one to which audiences young and old may relate.
I Lost My Body is now on Netflix.