The slightly surrealistic, slightly fantastic and slightly romantic French animated film I Lost My Body is making a lot of noise, especially with critics, who hail it as one of the best animated films of the year. Director Jérémy Clapin’s film became the first animated film ever to win the coveted Nespresso Grand Prize at Cannes. Clapin, who makes his directorial debut with the film, co-wrote it with Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Amelie, Guillaume Laurant, whose novel the script is adapted from. I talked to Clapin about the edgy and moving film, its themes of memory and destiny, and how a Parisian pop star added the crucial ingredient that makes this film so memorable.
AW: Congratulations on all the love and awards this film has been receiving. It’s an absolutely beautiful film, it deserves all the praise it is getting. It’s just magnificent. I wanted to ask you, animation is an art form that, in America at least, is too often thought of as just for children, or can only just tell a happy or simple story. This film shows that an animated film can have just as much depth and drama as any live-action film. What drew you to tell this particular story, and why is animation your preferred form of storytelling?
JC: You know, it’s part of my history. Before I was doing this, I was doing short films for adults. So, for me, it makes sense, if I wanted to move to feature films, to keep doing the same thing and not to change just because I’m doing a feature film. But you say this is a thing in the U.S., but it is also the same thing in Europe, I think everywhere. Except maybe Japan, where there is a more open view about it. But yes, we are in the middle of a sort of a slow revolution, not only with this film. With this film, we tried to push the limits of animation. What is difficult with this kind of film is we don’t have a social or political context. Even when we were trying to get funding for this film, it was really hard, because the film is about poetry, about daily situations with a little fantasy and realism. It wasn’t so easy for people to see a severed hand and see poetry. It was hard to tell people, ok, animation should be great to tell this kind of story. Of course, this is my sensibility, but someone else would use live action, but I think in this particular story, animation brings a distance, and when you are talking about a severed hand, it’s good to not be so organic and realistic. Animation brings all the elements some kind of equality.
AW: In the creation of the hand, you had to find the right tone. Because the hand’s journey is terrifying and funny and full of action. How was it to create the right tone in the drawing and the movements of the hand that wouldn’t make it seem silly or—sorry for the pun—cartoonish?
JC: I wanted, from the beginning of the shoot, to not have it be compared to other films with a severed hand, like Addams Family. My purpose here was to bring something new and to make you forget about all the other movies that you might have in mind. I think, when you look at the film, it works. But when I tried to pitch the film, I found everyone was still thinking about the other films, but when they finally see our film, they saw the difference. But yes, I was focused on not wanting it to be too ugly or too funny. I wanted it to be natural, like a new kind of animal. It had to be natural, even though a severed hand isn’t so natural. I wanted this character to be able to be on their knees, to be able to sit on the window, to live, not only as a severed hand, but as a real character, just without a body behind it.
AW: And it absolutely worked. And having the freckle or the mole you have on the hand, and then tying it back to the memories, you see that it’s Naoufel’s hand, because you see that same mole on the hand through the breadcrumbs that you leave. I wanted to talk about how memory is so important in this film. So much of your life is told through your hands. Tell me a little about that narrative structure and how you did it so seamlessly.
JC: The hand, of course, is a strong thing. When you shake the hand of someone, you know a bit more about the guy or the woman in front of you because there is kind of world inside the hand, you know? A hand tells a lot of things. It’s not only about memory, but also about the future. Because when you look at your hands, some people can read the lines and tell you your future in the hand. So we put a lot of symbolism into the hand, in fact. The film is really about destiny and is about past, present and future. And the hand is a kind of link to all these pieces of time. It’s a link to the past, present and future but also a symbol of something that gets detached from the character of Naoufel, like his childhood, like something that belongs to the past. So it’s not only something physically detached, but it’s a part of life trying to get back to make the character of Naoufel complete again.
AW: Speaking of Naoufel, I wanted to talk about him for a little bit. His journey is so moving. You had to create this character who is a little lost, a little angry, but is still so full of life and hope. What were the challenges to fine tune a character, especially without the assistance of a live actor?
JC: In fact, Naoufel has a broken life from when he was a child. I wanted the character as a child to be very joyous, and specific. He records sound, so he is recording the memory of something. And he wanted to be an astronaut, a pianist. He had a lot of imagination, of course. All this was broken by destiny. And then Naoufel, when he is in Paris, is stuck in his past and he is not able to make decisions in the present to change his future. But then he meets Gabrielle and this is the spark that brings him to a new goal to be able to project again to the future.
AW: And then comes the romance. But it is so underplayed and perfect. Were there other romances that were in your head when you were crafting this romance?
JC: I’m not sure I have any in mind. In my short films, it’s always subtle, the way I try to bring emotions to my films. I like the situation of the intercom, because it’s all about imagination. The film is also about connection. They are not physically connected, but in a way, they are connected in their imagination, Gabrielle and Naoufel, when they are talking, but only in the sound connection, in their imagination. It has to be subtle. When you are alone in a room, you don’t act the same as when you are in front of a real person.
AW: And the way that they first meet, it’s all just talking to each other, there wasn’t a wall there, they were much more free. It was a brilliant way to have them meet. And it really was effective.
JC: And it fit with the character of Naoufel. His approach to the world as a child was through sound. He’s reconnecting to the world again with a voice, with a sound. So it makes sense with the character also. But, for the subtleness in the dialogue, we actually shot all the actors before the animation. We did a live shooting of the actors, so the actors weren’t just in front of a screen and projecting with a voice, but here they were also acting with their bodies. And they were performing as real live action. We used a camera to frame them and we caught their voices as they were performing. So it was more authentic than usual in animation because we are using the body projection and the voice together. It can bring little accidents and I was open to bring these little accidents to the animation. Because, in animation, we use it to control everything and everything is anticipated, and I like the fact that I can bring into this very controlled system something about live action, which has less anticipation.
AW: I was going to ask you about that. There is so much expression in the voices that it translates even for those of us who don’t speak French. So, you built the animation around the performances instead of the other way around? That was so effective and it made the film feel more emotional and more authentic.
JC: Yes, it’s because I’m more comfortable with this kind of acting, it fits more with this kind of story. It is two characters—Gabrielle is a strange girl, not very accessible, and Naoufel is completely stuck through the whole film until the end. I need something very constrained, not projected too much.
AW: I wanted to go back to your comment about the hand, that it had to feel realistic, but also a little bit of fantasy. You had to bridge all of that. I wanted to talk about Paris. The city is another real character in the film. You really get a sense of the city, from literally the gutter all the way to the top of a tower. You see it in all its ugliness and beauty. It feels almost like a love letter to the city, in a way. How important was it to make Paris look real instead of the romantic ideal we too often see?
JC: I think it’s coming mostly from my sensibility. I love when poetry takes place in an area where poetry is not allowed to be, not invited, you know? I feel it’s always stronger when you’re not prepared to see poetry. If something is too beautiful, it’s too easy to see. If something is not too beautiful, sometimes the contrast, when you put poetry into this, makes the emotion stronger, for me. But, also, when I wanted to make the film, I wanted the story [of the hand] to bring the audience to a new experience, a new point of view. And to discover the life of someone through a new perspective and it was through the severed hand. But the physical journey also had to be a new experience for the audience. So, the town had to also be discovered by a new approach. The hand was right next to the pavement, and a lot of the time the hand had to be hidden, to travel in the shadows, so it’s not the same Paris anymore. It can be a Paris that’s very dirty, with danger, like meeting with the rats, for example, but it also brings Paris to something cosmic, like a spaceship. But it also needed to be supported by music, that can bring all this daily Paris, all this shadow area, to something light and more mystical. Without the music, it would be too hard.
AW: So we have to talk about the gorgeous score by Dan Levy, which really takes the film to a different level. How did you collaborate to create the mood of the film?
JC: Well, Dan and I didn’t know each other before this film. I knew he had a pop band in Paris called The Dø. And I really liked the instruments he used, a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments and he was able to play with a lot of different moods. The purpose of the music in the film, for me, was to really show Paris, not as something glamorous but something more cosmic and mystical. I wanted the music to be able to change the vision of the film. It’s a hard task for a composer! My hand-drawn style is not seen as often as CG or projection. I didn’t want to music to be too classical. I wanted the music to put modernity to this graphic proposition. It was about how to deal with real instruments and electronic instruments and to play organically with a new language around that. And the music was also there to be able to jump between timelines. I used the music to keep the emotional link between the timelines.
AW: It’s just beautiful. Talking about the animation, earlier you were talking about the revolution in the animation industry, now a lot of that is the CG and the digital, but you mention that this is still hand-drawn?
JC: In fact, it is a mix. It’s a mixed technique because I personally don’t like too much CG, I mean it’s great for family, kids and films like that, but, for me, when I see an animated film, I want to be touched, I want to feel humanity behind the drawings, not a computer. But I also know that I need the CG to be able to push the film because I wanted this immersion of the audience, like we are the camera, like we can see the world bigger around us. So, at first, everything was modeled and animated in CG, but then I stopped and finished the film with 2D drawings, 2D animators, 2D painters, 2D background designers to bring life, humanity, fragility to the universe. And I think when something is fragile, like a line that gets in by accident, you know, a human accident, it makes it even stronger.
AW: It ends with such a note of optimism—the idea that we can control our own destiny. What was the most important emotional note you wanted to hit with the audience? What did you want us to walk away with?
JC: As an audience member, I like to be able to have my own story with a film I am watching. It’s something I cannot share with the guy sitting next to me. I want the film to speak to me in a personal way. I love that. This can work if the film or the filmmaker or the script gives me a little space, you know, and is not pushing too much to make one single story. I need to make my own story. In this film, it’s the same kind of thing. I know it’s a debut film, but I wanted the film to bring the audiences into themselves a bit, to their past, to maybe reconsider a bit their own trajectory. And what I wanted in this film is—I don’t want to spoil too much—but when we leave Naoufel, he is living in front of a new perspective. He’s made a leap of faith, a place of rebirth for him. And you know this film, in fact, the severed hand is a real universal story, because it’s about the past, memory, it’s something we all share when we remember our childhood. Like when he’s lying on the beach playing with the sand, these kinds of moments are the same for everyone, I think. When you are a child, you don’t think too much about destiny, you just live in the present, but when you grow up, something is not the same. It’s about how to try to protect the good decisions of the present and to change the future. To be able to look at the future not as something scary, but something open.