Netflix's Hauntingly Beautiful 'I Lost My Body' Is the Must-See Animated Feature of the Year
If you ride the public transit in a major city for long enough, you can expect to see some strange occurrences. About a quarter into Jeremy Clapin’s feature-length debut, the brilliantly animated French film I Lost My Body, there’s a scene that would terrify even the most hardened and experienced subway commuter.
A trio of hungry, sauce-thirsty rats attempt to drag a helpless creature into the darkness underneath a Parisian train platform, the station's passengers completely unaware of the odd situation happening right under their feet. What the tunnel rats want to feast on isn't a fellow rodent, but rather a human hand, nothing too distinct about it besides a small dark spot between the knuckles of its index and ring finger. This hand, the unlikely star of this weirdly mesmerizing film, escapes thanks to a lighter and a train that happens to be leaving the station. This severed right hand has survived becoming rat food, but its journey is far from over -- it has more dangers to overcome if it wants to return home, to the body it was once a part of.
A loose adaptation of Academy Award nominee Guillaume Laurant's (Amelie) 2006 novel, Happy Hand, I Lost My Body is perhaps the most unodorothox and surreal animated feature of the year. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it was acquired by Netflix, the film has already earned numerous accolades from Cannes, the Annecy International Film Festival, and most recently the Animation Is Film Festival in Los Angeles, where it earned the top prize.
We first meet our unusual protagonist through the eyes of its co-star, Naoufel, a shy, emotionally repressed pizza delivery boy-turned-carpenter's apprentice. Because of a workplace accident involving a fly and a bandsaw, the hand and its host have become violently separated. Not one to accept its fate among the rest of the removed body parts inside a coroner's office fridge, the hand breaks out in a sequence that pays homage to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's surreal classic Un Chien Andalou, in the form of an eyeball that gets squashed under a gentleman's foot.
The hand wants to return to Naoufel's right wrist, but it won't be easy. It will have to navigate the streets, tunnels, and rooftops of Paris, handling the obstacles with resilience, quick thinking, and luck. During its perilous journey, the hand recalls Naoufel's life before the accident -- mainly his attempt to win over Gabrielle, a librarian who enjoys the work of John Irving and having lots of onions on her pizza -- and his early childhood in Morocco. The latter scenes, animated in black-and-white, show us a much different Naoufel than the one who spends his days delivering pizzas. He was a boy with dreams of becoming both a pianist and an astronaut, who enjoyed using his tape recorder to document the sounds of nature as well as the voices of his loving, artistic parents. His life was filled with music, love, and curiosity. All of that taken away after an accident that would make him an orphan, forcing him to move to Paris to live with his cold, uncaring uncle, and his crass and rude cousin Raouf.
After seemingly years of only the cassette tapes he recorded of his parents to keep him company, Naoufel is aimless. He believes that there is nothing for him in this life -- until he meets Gabrielle through an intercom one evening as Naoufel, already 40 minutes late to deliver her pizza, waits out a downpour after a few failed attempts at opening her lobby door. It's clear from their opening exchange that Gabrielle is both extremely straightforward and the first person in a long time to really talk to Naoufel as a person, not as an employee to belittle, a roommate to emasculate, or as a charity case to ignore.
Sensing a connection and after trying unsuccessfully to call her, Naoufel goes to her job, but because he suffers from crippling anxiety, he follows her to her uncle's workshop. Not wanting to admit that he's spent his day stalking his niece, he asks if Gabrielle's carpenter's uncle Gigi would take him as an apprentice. After being initially reluctant to take him on, Gigi gives the determined kid a shot, letting him live in a small room by the workshop.
The film, animated using a mixture of 2D and CGI animation, has a graphic novel sensibility to it. Clapin's take on Paris is thankfully not the City of Lights many of us are accustomed to seeing in films like Amelie, but rather grimier, industrial, and realistic. The streets are littered with cigarette butts and other garbage; its old subway cars have graffiti scrawled on the glass, and wears spots of rust from decades of use; there isn’t a single shot of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, or any location familiar to tourists. Accompanying both the hand and Naoufel's journey in this version of Paris is the spellbinding score composed by Dan Levy -- a mixture of classical piano, electronic, and French hip-hop -- a distinctive mixture of styles that amplifies the film's dream-like, melancholic tone.
Both the hand and Naoufel have singular goals -- reconnecting with Naoufel and connecting with Gabrielle, respectively -- doing whatever is in their power to accomplish it. However, the hand is the star for a reason. Even without a corporeal form, the hand doesn’t suddenly grow its own set of eyes and ears now that it's gained sentience, but Clapin successfully makes it a fully-formed character, infusing it with emotion and personality through sheer physicality. The hand's mission is also filled with thrilling moments: that desperate battle with the subway rats, a quick-thinking escape from the jaws of a service dog, and a daring attempt to pull off a Mary Poppins by gliding through a Parisian highway via umbrella. Clapin and his animators also fill the hand's adventure with beautiful and surreal visuals -- the red and orange glow that comes from the lighter illuminating the darkness of the subway platform; the lights of the cars spin and turn to stars as the hand crosses the highway, our five-fingered hero momentarily transported to space and back again.
As for the rest of its body: while the film doesn't let Naoufel off the hook for his misguided attempt to win over Gabrielle, his near-obsession with her and foolish attempt at chivalry may lead to some being uneasy or worse, uninterested. Naoufel is clearly not used to building a connection with anyone, let alone a woman he's interested in, but appearing at someone's job unannounced, stalking her, and continuing to hide his identity until he finds it convenient doesn’t make him come off as cute, but creepy.
The film's lack of a happily ever after ending may frustrate some viewers who are accustomed to such tidy resolutions in animated films. What Clapin wants viewers to take away from this film is that even though Naoufel has already lost so much in his young life -- his parents, his chance of making a romantic connection with Gabrielle, his own hand -- the last few weeks before the separation has allowed him to grow as a person. He has lost a part of himself, he knows that he will never truly be whole, but he's gained the drive to leap into the unknown, to take life into his own, well, hand.
With its wholly unique premise, accolades piling up, and Netflix putting at least a tad of its marketing muscle behind it thanks to its limited release in theaters, I Lost My Body should easily have a secure place among the nominations for the Best Animated Feature at the 2020 Oscars, even with the record number of submissions. After months of anticipation, I walked away from I Lost My Body extremely impressed that even with its flaws, I was still very taken by the voyage of this year's most unlikely protagonist. I'm used to connecting with characters who are made of pencils and ink, but this is the first time I've connected with a character's lone hand. By successfully adapting Laurant's novel, Clapin has not only given us someone whose work we can eagerly look forward to exploring in the upcoming decade, but also the possibility that idiosyncratic, ambitious features aimed at adults will be more easily available thanks to streaming services; it may be one of the true bright spots in the future we're all being propelled towards.