As I Lost My Body (the brilliant feature animation debut of writer-director Jérémy Clapin) begins, a young man is lying on the ground, his glasses broken and splattered with blood. He’s dazed and he doesn’t seem to fully realize that his newly severed right hand is lying nearby, twitching slightly. Or does he? The young man, whose name is Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris), is soon seen flashing back to a moment from his Moroccan childhood, when he lay on the beach watching the sand fall from his palm.
Either way, the ephemeral nature of the sand and the startling solidity of his hand, as a child and later, will be two recurrent visual themes of Naoufel’s life, compounded by a never-ending quest to catch a fly in his palm.
When the severed hand escapes the medical laboratory fridge in which it’s been stored (I’ve seen the movie twice and still don’t understand how it got there), a citywide quest to find the body to which it belongs begins. The hand doesn’t talk, but proves to be as expressive as Remy the rat in Ratatouille, and twice as resourceful.
After a tragic battle with a mother pigeon protecting her young, the hand lands inside a trash truck — the pigeon’s dead body lying on top of him with its staring eye an accusation. It ends up using a ravioli can as a suit of armor, like a sand crab scuttling across the beach, eventually falling out of the truck, leaving a trail of sauce — which looks a lot like blood — on the sidewalk. A bit later, after a harrowing journey down a subway escalator, the red stuff on the hand’s fingers may in fact be fresh blood. Is this possible? Does a severed hand bleed? You’ll wonder, and you’ll worry.
Clapin who adapted the 2006 novel Happy Hand with novelist-screenwriter Guillaume Laurant (Amélie), artfully condenses Naoufel’s long journey from the moment when he accidentally loses his hand to the death of his parents when he’s a boy to his subsequent life in Paris with a negligent uncle. Shell-shocked and very much alone, Naoufel grows up to become the city’s slowest pizza delivery boy but finds new purpose — an obsession worthy of a hand seeking its master — after becoming enamored of Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois) a librarian with whom he has a soulful apartment building intercom conversation after he’s late with her pizza.
Filmed in CG and then redrawn in 2D, I Lost My Body has the gritty textures of an urban drama, and a visual motif that is as alternately harsh and elegiac as a night spent walking across a modern city. Just after it ditches the ravioli can, the hand falls onto the subway tracks and into a new problem. Above it, commuters step onto the train, completely unaware that directly below, literally at their feet, the severed hand is in a stand-off with rats. It’s a quick shot, and it’s thrilling. More exquisitely, a baby in a crib reaches out in the night to grasp the fingers of the lonely hand that has wandered into its room. For a time, baby and hand console one another. In the night, they rest.
There are hints of Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill in that commuter step onto the subway train, and echoes of the director’s sound-drenched thriller Blow Out (1981) in Naoufel’s youthful obsession with capturing the sounds of nature — the buzz of an ever-present fly — as well as the voices of his parents on his old-school cassette tape recorder. Like John Travolta in Blow Out, Naoufel waves his microphone in the air, as if to conjure magic, a gesture that will prove to be a crucial point of strength at movie’s end, when he’ll attempt a gesture big enough to “dribble past fate.”
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