Culture

Coming of age with a wandering hand

BEIRUT: As coming-of-age tales go, Jeremy Clapin’s 2019 animated feature “J’ai perdu mon corps” (“I Lost My Body”) is a fragmented thing. Like others of its kind, though, it’s designed to tug at the heartstrings. It yanks effectively.

The film commences as a rapid-fire montage involving the sound of a buzzing fly, a vague act of violence, the image of a fly landing on the back of a hand, a pair of spectacles, and a name, Nawfal. The montage segues into the first of several flashbacks, including a conversation between a little boy and his dad about the best way to catch a housefly.

Two plots emerge from this turbulence. In the second of the two, Nawfal (Hakim Fares) is introduced as a little boy growing up in a cultured Francophone household in Morocco.

The only child of a pair of musicians, the bespectacled boy shows signs of being a prodigy. At least he tells his mum he enjoys his piano lessons. Music isn’t his first career choice, he says, because he likes the idea of being an astronaut. When his parents present him with a cassette recorder, he obsessively carries the microphone around, documenting.

For reasons best left unspoiled, he grows to adolescence in Paris, living hand-to-mouth with a hostile gent and his son, Raouf. The story, co-written by Clapin and Guillaume Laurant, never spells out their relationship, though Raouf’s Arabic name implies the three are somehow related.

Nawfal does a poor job delivering pizza, which is how he meets Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois). A voice relayed by intercom to the lobby of an anonymous tower block, she immediately becomes the most attractive thing in his life and is lodged at the center of his story.

The film oscillates between Nawfal’s tale of loss, loneliness, love and longing, and the first story to emerge from the opening montage - the chronicle of a severed hand that’s somewhere between the surreal and fable.

It stirs to life right after the title credits, emerging from a refrigerator stocked with body parts (including a large jar of eyeballs) that crash to the tiles as the hand flops about, trying to free itself from a plastic bag.

The situation remains ill-defined, deceptively so as the hand’s escape is complicated by the appearance of a dodgy-looking film noir-ish figure in a trenchcoat and fedora. Upon escaping, the hand appears to have a destination, but its progress is impeded by its size and the various traumas induced along the way.

Odd spells of unconsciousness afford convenient opportunities for backstory-filling flashbacks that somehow link the hand’s story to that of Nawfal.

“Mon corps” premiered this past spring in the Semaine de la Critique (SiC), the Cannes Film Festival sidebar reserved for filmmakers’ first and second features, where it won the Grand Prix Nespresso, SiC’s big prize. The film will have its regional debut Monday evening (July 22) at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.

The animation that brings the narrative to life (credited to Julien Belloteau, Jeanne Irzenski and Romain Vacher), is of the understated, seemingly hand-drawn, variety that’s proved its utility in both adult cinema and some non-North American children’s entertainments.

Presumably it’s Clapin and Laurant’s leavening of Nawfal’s melancholy, somewhat banal story with the film’s other bizarrely imaginative one that won the sympathy of the SiC jury.

The quality of the plotting isn’t restricted to the gimmick of a sentient, self-propelled hand. The main feature of the writing is its economy. No panel is wasted explaining things, though the film’s reliance upon flashback to flesh out the backstory makes it more conventional than it wants to appear.

Importantly, the writers don’t spoil the end. Makers of family-appropriate movies like this often deliver a final dollop of saccharine.

“Mon corps” doesn’t conclude in mounds of gore, but neither do Laurant and Clapin magically mend all the story’s wounds. The film’s concluding contingency allows viewers to taste the saccharine if they want, or a more bitter Kool-Aid.

One convention that’s worth revisiting is the Beirut reiteration of the Semaine de la Critique. SiC was the first program Metropolis presented when it opened in the difficult month of July 2006, and has been returning every year since.

The 2019 edition of Cannes and its various parallel programs were unusually rich in films from the MENA region. Several of these premiered during SiC, so Beirut film lovers will have a great opportunity to view several quality works by up-and-coming regional talents, in addition to the international titles that dominate the selection.

Among the more anticipated titles is “The Unknown Saint” (“Le Miracle du Saint Inconnu”), the debut feature of Moroccan writer-director Alaa Eddine Aljem, which recounts the story of a thief who manages to dig a grave to bury some stolen treasure just before the cops nab him. After he’s released, he returns to the site to retrieve the loot, only to find someone’s erected a shrine, devoted to the unknown saint believed to be buried there.

The directorial debut of well-known French actor Hafsia Herzi, “Tu merites un amour” (“You Deserve a Lover”), tells the story of a tortured post-infidelity-breakup love affair.

Set in mid-’90s Algeria, Amin Sidi-Boumediene’s “Abou Leila,” is an ironic drama about two men who, while pursuing a notorious terrorist on the run in the Sahara, learn uncomfortable lessons about the violence within themselves.

Also worth keeping an eye out for is “Fakh” (“The Trap”), a 20-minute short by director Nada Riyadh, telling a perhaps surprising story of what happens when an unmarried Egyptian couple steal some quiet time together.

For those interested in SiC’s best films, or rather those the jury found reason to support, there are several other titles to note. The winner of both Cannes’ 2019 Camera d’Or and SiC’s SACD prize, Cesar Diaz’s “Nuestras Madres” (“Our Mothers”) looks in on the melancholy tale of Ernesto, a young anthropologist employed to identify the remains of those disappeared during Guatemala’s civil war in the 1980s, who picks up a lead about his missing father’s whereabouts.

“Hvitur, Hvitur Dagur” (“A White, White Day”) by Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Palmason, which took the section’s Prix Fondation Louis Roederer de la Revelation, is the story of a widower’s obsessed with the man he believes had an affair with his wife.

The winner of the Prix Fondation Gan à la Diffusion, SiC’s distribution prize, Lorcan Finnegan’s “Vivarium” tells the story of a young Irish couple lured to a peculiar housing development by a dodgy estate agent.

“J’ai perdu mon corps” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil July 22 at 8 p.m. The 13th Beirut reiteration of Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique continues through Aug. 3. Films are subtitled in English or French. For more, see www.metropoliscinema.net/page/events/.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 20, 2019, on page 12.

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