The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
My Life as a Courgette

Written by Cat Lester.

Photo from the article My Life as a Courgette (known in some English-speaking territories as My Life as a Zucchini and in its native French as Ma Vie de Courgette) concerns the experiences of a young boy - the eponymous Courgette, the nickname by which he prefers to be known - in a children’s home following the untimely death of his mother. At the home, the stories of the other children Courgette befriends unfold. The film’s delights are numerous, from the toy-like quality of the stop-motion figures to the film’s deft balance of humour and pathos, no doubt instrumental in it earning a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. My principal interest in the film, which only made its way to UK cinemas this summer, is its remarkable, matter-of-fact way of tackling ‘mature’ subject matter in a mode that addresses both child and adult viewers simultaneously and equally, without either watering its mature content down or becoming ‘unsuitable’ for children. It is remarkable precisely because this is not easily achieved or frequently seen in children’s films that are screened for UK and US audiences, and merits discussing in relation to the broader problem of address in children’s fiction and the resulting hierarchy of adult and child consumers.

Jacqueline Rose famously declared in her 1984 work The Case of Peter Pan that children’s fiction is ‘impossible’. Not impossible in the sense that it simply does not exist - clearly, there exists a whole publishing industry that produces fiction addressed and marketed to children - but impossible due to the imbalance that arises from the fact that although it is ostensibly for children, it is in the overwhelming majority of cases constructed by adults. Thus, according to Rose, children’s fiction does not primarily address the needs or desires of real child readers or viewers, but those of adults creating content for and about children.

Rose’s argument relates to the broader issue of address in children’s entertainment. Barbara Wall, in Narrator’s Voice: The Dilemma of Children\"s Fiction (1991) outlines three modes of address that can be found in children’s literature, each one defined by the extent to which a text addresses its cross-generational audiences:

1. Single address: solely targets children throughout the entirety of a text, without any attempt to address or appeal to an adult audience.

2. Double address: overtly targets children, but occasionally ‘deliberately exploits the ignorance of the implied child reader and attempts to entertain an implied adult reader by making jokes which are funny primarily because children will not understand them’. This can take a range of forms, including intertextual references and double entendre, and there are countless examples of this in children’s literature and audio-visual media. For example, this sequence from Hocus Pocus (1993) in which some witches are propositioned by a bus driver.

3. Dual address: addresses adults and children simultaneously, allowing a ‘conjunction’ of their mutual interests.

In relation to film, Noel Brown and Bruce Babington argue in Family Films in Global Cinema: The World Beyond Disney (2015) that single address is rarely employed as children seldom go to the cinema alone, or are generally beholden to the purchasing choices and decision-making of adult guardians. When single address is employed by media for children, it is very often derided by adult commentators, parents or not, who bemoan having to suffer through content that dares to not consider their needs. For example, last year Guardian writer Stuart Heritage called most children’s television ‘crushingly dull’ and ‘one of the worst parts of being a parent’. This attitude rather arrogantly assumes that media created for children has a duty to appease adults, and that its quality can only be properly judged by them, thus establishing a hierarchy in which the opinions and tastes of adults hold more value than those of children. In terms of reception, at least, we can see Rose’s notion of ‘impossibility’ at work due to adult demands that audio-visual media for children meets the needs of adult viewers. It also bears pointing out that even children’s texts that employ single address are created by adults who are simply adopting a childlike perspective. Further, single-addressed children’s texts, like most children’s texts, have a tendency to contain some sort of pedagogical or moral element, therefore remaining ‘impossible’ in the sense of meeting adult conceptions of what is ‘good’ for children.

Given this bind, and the disparaging attitude that is often directed by adults toward ‘single address’ children’s texts, it is of no surprise that the most common forms of address to be employed by children’s films are double and dual address. No doubt, their use of these forms of address are instrumental to appealing to parents and other adult viewers in order to turn a profit. Indeed, when children’s texts employ these forms of address successfully, they are often praised by adults. This is the case in Heritage’s article, in which he discusses such programmes in hushed tones as holy grails among a wasteland of hand puppets and overly cheerful presenters. He compares them to the works of cinematic auteurs, from Stanley Kubrick to Wes Anderson. In relation to cinema, such praise is often found in relation to the works of Pixar or Studio Ghibli.

Double address can have mixed results
Double address can have mixed results
But attempts to appeal equally to adults and children is not always easy. Sometimes, texts overdo double address, which can sometimes feel as if a cruel joke is being played at the expense of unknowing children. I feel that the Hotel Transylvania films, which are rife with sexual innuendo (including jokes about necrophilia) are particularly guilty of this. Sometimes, attempts to appeal to children and adults simultaneously can simply fail to do so coherently, resulting in something that feels disjointed or simply bizarre. A stellar example of this is Nine Lives (2016). The A-plot - presumably intended to be the ‘stuff for the kids’ - involves Kevin Spacey’s character (who hates cats) getting turned into a cat, and the hijinks that ensue. The crux of the B-plot - the meaty emotional core to presumably keep the parents interested - is that Spacey’s character is a selfish business tycoon whose chief ambition is to build a skyscraper, and that this ambition has alienated him from his family. And so, Spacey-as-cat must attempt to reconnect with his family, prevent a hostile takeover of his company, and return to human form before it is too late. The film demonstrates the most cynical attitude toward family films: that kids will happily watch anything that is silly and involves talking animals (especially if the silly talking animal is secretly an arrogant grown-up) regardless of how poorly everything around it is constructed. Just throw in some business talk and an emotional climax and the adults will be happy, too. In fact, as an adult viewer, the only parts of the film I liked were the cat hijinks and Christopher Walken as a sage but eccentric cat whisperer who guides Spacey through his quest . However, these moments of joy are constantly interrupted by stunningly dull and incongruous business meetings about quantities of steel, which surely fail to appeal to anyone, regardless of age.

As was recently pointed out to me, an excellent counter-point to Nine Lives is Elf (2003). Like Nine Lives, fun hijinks involving an adult in a childlike situation or state-of-mind are balanced with the narrative of a surly patriarch who struggles to emotionally connect with his family, and who has forgotten the joys of childishness (and by extension, Christmas), despite being the CEO of a children’s publishing company. And so, the supplementary business talk concerns not raw building materials, but what kind of anthropomorphic vegetable the protagonist of the company’s latest children’s picture book should be - something that both child and adult viewers are presumably able to understand and enjoy. Elf is not unique in this regard; just consider a few of the most beloved and successful family films in recent years. Many of them concern the emotional growth of an adult (usually a father figure), which is worked through in a setting or situation that is inherently associated with childhood: Hook (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), School of Rock (2003), the Toy Story trilogy (1995-2010) and Despicable Me series (2010-2017).

Clearly, it is possible and rather common for films to successfully achieve dual address, uniting the interests of child and adult viewers. What, then, is it about My Life as a Courgette that is different, that makes it stand out? In part, it is that the film is told almost entirely through the perspectives of child characters (who, crucially, are voiced by child actors). In the films I have just mentioned, children are important characters, but they are secondary to the narrative of an adult (male) protagonist, functioning as problems that he must deal with, narrative catalysts, and/or important aids in helping him reconnect with his inner child and achieve his goals.

Instead, in My Life as a Courgette the child characters, their inner lives and perspectives, are paramount. This privileging of the child is central to the film’s narrative, as well as woven into its dialogue and mise-en-scène, with the use of stop-motion animation lending it a distinctly childlike aesthetic (it is as if all of the characters are dolls in a child’s playset). The privileging of the child’s perspective is evident from the opening sequence, which begins with a shot of a child’s kite against a blue sky. The kite, we learn, is anchored within the attic bedroom of Courgette as he plays with toys. His mother is glimpsed briefly before her death, shot from an angle that captures her back and a slither of the side of her face only. This sets up the point-of-view of the rest of the film. With one exception, every scene in the film has a child present. By this I do not simply mean that a child is physically present; even when physically absent, children are present via their letters, drawings and the aural presence of their voices. Scenes involving solely adults, such as the policeman who finds and befriends Courgette, are accompanied by Courgette’s voice, narrating his life via letters and drawings that he sends to the policeman. This is one way in which the film allows the children at the home to tell their own and each other’s stories. This is never left to the adult characters (the policeman, the care workers and the relatives of child characters), even when the details of these backstories are of a nature that would typically be considered ‘unsuitable’ for children (which I will return to shortly). The lives of adult characters, too, are related to the audience by the children or shown from their points of view. For example, a kiss between two of the care workers at the home, behind a van which they think is out of view of the children, is shown through the perspectives of the children themselves, who are inside the van, watching through the rear-view mirror. Though the film does not preclude depicting the world of adults, it is clear that it is primarily interested in showing us how adult lives are perceived by children.

This brings me to the primary reason My Life as a Courgette stands apart from most other films for children. The film does not shy away from content that is usually, at least in Anglo-American culture, considered unsuitable for children. To the contrary, the film acknowledges and embraces that ‘mature’ concepts like sex, violence and abuse can be part of the fabric of children’s lives and thoughts, however much we, as adults, might want to deny this. In My Life as a Courgette, each of the child characters is in the home due to unfortunate, often tragic, circumstances. Courgette was implicit in his own mother’s death, an accidental act of self-defence incited by his fear of her alcoholism. Moreover, Courgette is entirely aware of his role in his mother’s death, and says as much to another child. His admission is not one of guilt, or a hint towards some kind of hidden depravity that might surface in years to come. It is simply presented as a fact of his life that he accepts, however difficult that is. Similarly, Courgette and his friend Simon read in the file of another child, Camille, that she has been orphaned due to a case of murder-suicide (which Camille witnessed). Not all of the children’s backgrounds are presented in such matter-of-fact terms. One child’s father is referred to as ‘a real creep’, and another’s mother is obliquely described as exhibiting obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Nevertheless, thanks to the explanation of these circumstances in the voices and language of children, I don’t believe that a child viewer would need to have any awareness of what paedophilia or OCD are in order to have a basic understanding of why the child characters are in the care of a children’s home.

Similarly, matters of sex are expressed frequently, but only through the mouths of children and to very comic effect. The aforementioned adult couple have a baby together. The news of the pregnancy inspires the children to speculate about sex, or what they refer to as ‘the thing’. Simon recalls what he knows from having seen films in his parents’ porn collection. In his explanation, he says that it ends with the explosion of the man’s willy. Putting these details in such childlike terms allows the film to avoid the problem of double address as outlined above: a joke, often sexual in nature, that targets at adult audience at the expense of the ignorant child audience who is left in the dark. Instead, in an example of dual address, discussion of sexual matters in My Life as a Courgette can be understood and enjoyed by both adults and children for slightly different, but overlapping, reasons. Adult viewers are likely to be amused by Simon’s naive and strangely inaccurate-yet-accurate description. While I am unclear as to how children actually receive these parts of the film, my reading is that by the crudeness and childishness of the language signals to child viewers the absurdity of Simon’s description - an exploding willy - and join the adult viewer in laughing at it. Thus, though child viewers may not be aware of the specifics of sex, their experience of this scene may coalesce with that of adult viewers due to their shared knowledge that it is both ridiculous, amusing, and ever-so-slightly taboo. This works to destabilise the hierarchy between adult and child audiences, and is a world away from sexual jokes in other children’s films (such as the aforementioned example from Hocus Pocus) that directly address adults ahead of children.

<i>Jurassic Park</i> as family film
Jurassic Park as family film
My Life as a Courgette’s national context as a French-Swiss co-production and its privileging of the lives, perspectives and voices of child characters allows the film to be categorised as a ‘children’s film’ rather than a ‘family film’. This distinction is made by Cary Bazalgette and Terry Staples in their chapter on the subject in In Front of the Children: Screen Entertainment and Young Audiences (1995). ‘Children’s film’ and ‘family film’ are terms that tend to be used interchangeably - and indeed, this is what I have done in this article thus far. However, to think of them as distinct can be instructive. For Bazalgette and Staples, family films tend to feature adult stars in the lead roles as characters coping with children as secondary characters, references that children may not understand, and as privileging adult reactions and perspectives over those of children. Indeed, this is certainly the case for many of the films I have mentioned above, such as Jurassic Park. Children’s films, on the other hand, offer ‘mainly or entirely a child’s point-of-view’, deal with ‘the interests, fears, misapprehensions and concerns of children on their own terms’ and ‘foreground the problems of coping with adults, or of coping without them’ - all of which is applicable to My Life as a Courgette. Important to this discussion is that Bazalgette and Staples also argue that the family film is ‘essentially American’, and the children’s film a European concept due to industrial differences: family films are preferred by Hollywood studios due to their broad demographic appeal which results in greater box office takings, while in many other countries the production of films for children is subsidised by the government and seen as a social responsibility and an essential element of the production of home-grown content. In this context, we might say that children’s films produced in Europe generally adopt ‘single address’ (i.e. only targeting children) while American family films adopt dual and double address. This US/European binary is not necessarily something that I fully agree with, nor do I think we can simply divide films up into groups ‘for children’ and ‘for families’. The lines between them, especially in US cinema, are far too blurred, and there are many American films that meet Bazalgette and Staples’ criteria (e.g Coraline [2009]) even though they may not, like My Life as a Courgette, deal with ‘adult’ issues like sex through a child’s perspective.

Even so, Bazalgette and Staples’ work reveals that my positioning of My Life as a Courgette as unique among children’s cinema is deceptive when we consider its status as a European production. Bazalgette and Staples discuss other children’s films that occur from the perspectives of child characters, privilege their concerns, and talk frankly about sex and other ‘adult’ issues: Me and Mamma Mia (Denmark, 1989) and Where is My Friend’s House? (Iran, 1987). Even in this context, however, I still believe that My Life as a Courgette holds an important position when we take into account its distribution and reception and think about what Hollywood (as well as the UK film industry, despite its geographical positioning in Europe) could learn from it. According to their IMDb pages, Me and Mamma Mia and Where is My Friend’s House? did not receive theatrical releases outside of continental Europe and a handful of Asian countries. This observation is not intended as a comment upon their worth, but simply to highlight how rarely foreign-language children’s/family films reach English-speaking markets, especially live-action films. By contrast My Life as a Courgette has been released in four continents, screened at dozens of international film festivals, and received an Oscar nomination. Granted, this is nothing compared to the box office numbers and critical attention given to the output of Disney, Pixar and even Studio Ghibli, but it has nonetheless received far more widespread attention than most other films of its ilk, which may make it more widely available to the audience that it should be reaching - namely, children.

Why is this important? Thanks to its relatively widespread availability, My Life as a Courgette demonstrates to Anglo-American film audiences and industries the possibility for children’s films to address ‘dark’ but important issues in children’s lives while successfully achieving that holy grail of dual address - that is, without sacrificing either its privileging of child characters and viewers or the fundamental enjoyment and approval of adults, the gatekeepers of children’s entertainment. What is both interesting and disappointing is that the US and UK classification boards have given the film more restrictive ratings than it has in its native France. In France it is ‘tous publics’, meaning that viewers of all ages are permitted to view it, while in the US it is rated PG-13 and in the UK PG. Ironically, this means that the characters in My Life as a Courgette would not legally be allowed to view the film, and experience the privileging of the child’s perspective that makes it special, without the permission of an adult. And there lies the problem: that children’s films which portray children and their lives and experiences with even the smallest degree of accuracy, but which contradict cultural notions of the purity and innocence of childhood, are paradoxically not deemed suitable for real children to view. As long as this remains the case, Rose’s paradigm of children’s fiction as ‘impossible’ persists.

This article was published on September 11, 2017.

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