The hand stood up on three fingers and its thumb, and craned its forefinger like a long nose… Slowly the hand crept over the stones, searching.
I Lost My Body, screening in selected cinemas before hitting Netflix on Friday, isn’t anime. But this outstanding French animation is the kind of film that pushes animation – and specifically animated features – in crazy new directions we haven’t seen before.
The film is partly the melancholic story of a lonely youth in Paris; but primarily, it’s the story of a severed hand roaming Paris. This body part battles its way through the city, throttling pigeons, duelling rats, scuttling through ducts, flying on brollies. It’s the most heroic hand in cinema; an object seen a thousand times a day, now simultaneously human and alien.
The more conventional side of the film, which shapes the crazier stuff without containing it, is about a boy, Naoufel. We first see him as a child with his loving parents in Morocco, who dreams of being an astronaut and a pianist (because why not both?). But then a bad thing happens. Afterward, the teenage Naoufel is orphaned and unwanted in Paris, with a miserable job delivering pizzas on motorbike. Then he “encounters” a female customer, though he just hears her voice on a speakerphone, complaining that her pizza’s late. He’s fascinated with the voice (linking with the disembodiment motif), and obsesses with meeting her in person.
But it’s the severed hand that grips. Its adventures are intercut with Naoufel’s story, and indeed the hand remembers Naoufel’s story. Naoufel, ominously, is shown with both hands, suggesting an unpleasant fate awaits him. But the hand would be fascinating without Naoufel. Crawling hands used to be the province of body-horror flicks and Addams Family cartoons, though some writers treated them with dignity. The lines quoted at the top of this review are from Ted Hughes’ kids’ book The Iron Man, which began with a robot hand crawling on a beach at midnight, seeking other body parts. Sounds horrible, but it was fascinating to young children.
There was a pinch of such imagery in Brad Bird’s cartoon film The Iron Giant, loosely inspired by Hughes’s story, but it wasn’t nearly as weird. The queasy wonder was better captured by cartoon characters with detachable hands and other parts. In Toy Story 3, Mr Potato Head’s dismembered feats evoked David Lynch; there was also the sewn-together Sally in Nightmare Before Christmas. But I Lost My Body takes the magic grotesquerie further, into poignancy and poetry.
It’s startling to learn that director Jérémy Clapin and scriptwriter Guillame Laurant (who co-wrote the wildly different Amélie) discussed having the hand speak. In the final film, that seems unimaginable, like giving speech to Aardman stars Gromit and Shaun. “Bit by bit we realised we should get rid of the hand’s voice,” Clapin told Sight & Sound magazine. “We entered deeper into (the hand’s) world, which is silent.” Actually, I Lost My Body has more human dialogue than other French cartoon landmarks: Belleville Rendez-vous, The Illusionist or the Ghibli-produced The Red Turtle.
The best talky scene is the “boy doesn’t meet girl” sequence when Naoufel is stuck comically behind a door, falling in love with the girl’s voice. Some reviewers balk at Naoufel’s subsequent actions, pursuing the voice’s owner in a blatantly stalkerish way. Yet there’s no hint that the film’s condoning his conduct. We sympathise with Naoufel, not seeing him as a physical threat, but his actions are offensive and shown as such. A deeper problem is with the animation in his story. In places, the frame-rate drops so low that it’s obtrusive, as if we’re watching an unfinished film.
The soundscapes, though, are superb. The film’s opening immerses us in the hand’s world, the buzzing of flies and hoovers and the whipping wind. The final scenes use sound brilliantly to stitch past and present together. The film’s music travels from yearning synths to throbbing techno.
There’s nothing very anime-ish about I Lost My Body, though a surprising number of reviewers compare its style to anime. That may reflect the fact that it has a serious tone; it isn’t aimed at kids; and it lacks a strong cartoon aesthetic. Until the final scenes, the hand has little “character” beyond its clinging desperation. The power of its story comes from its terrible vulnerability in the film-long obstacle course. Some of Body’s nightmare sequences, as when the hand must fight rats underground, remind me of the animated films by Martin Rosen: he made the infamously scary Watership Down and the lesser-known Plague Dogs, which set animals against brutal nature.
There’s little that’s too frightening for a children’s film. I loved Watership Down in the cinema at six, bloodied bunnies and all, and the severed hand’s adventures in Body are no worse. It’s left to Body’s “human” scenes to establish this is an adult film; for example, a stray moment when Naoufel disturbs two acquaintances having sex. If you’re looking for an adult comparison to Body, it has (very) broad analogies to Gaspar Noé’s live-action Enter the Void. In that film, a bodiless protagonist soared over Tokyo, wistfully recalling its human existence.
In his interview with Sight & Sound, Clapin said that France stereotyped comics and animation as kids’ fare from the 1940s and 1950s, just like America. One reason was the power of Disney; another were the censorship laws brought in to protect children. However, Clapin also argued that France’s New Wave cinema played a role. He claimed the New Wave made a link between adult subjects in cinema and a live-action approach, based on free cameras and improvisation. These devices aren’t possible in animation, except when that animation is traced from reality.
As counters to this view, Clapin cited two anime films as inspirations. They’re both films by the director Satoshi Kon, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers. “I like the way (Kon) films everyday life, how he points his ‘camera’ at the slightly dirty corners of Tokyo,” Clapin said. Godfathers presented the Tokyo experienced by homeless people, of dingy alleys, derelict houses and garbage bags, like the Paris of Body.
Clapin’s film also makes deft transitions between its twinned storylines while keeping their story link ambiguous until the end. This may be inspired by Millennium Actress, without the visual intricacies of Kon’s editing, but still with strong pictorial continuities. Scenes switch from “hand, attached” to “hand, unattached”; sometimes, we’re not sure which scene we’re in for a few seconds. At other points, we follow what seems to be an immortal fly between times and continents.
Body’s ending, though, feels entirely French. It’s very oblique, without an overt Hollywood resolution, expecting you to reflect on the story as the end credits roll. As it happened, I Lost My Body opened in cinemas the same week as Disney’s incomparably more populist Frozen 2, which has the idea that water retains memory. Body suggests that severed limbs keep memory too, and can fight to ensure that the memory isn’t lost.