Ma vie de Courgette (“My Life as a Zucchini”, 2016) // Child Protection Today: A Happy End?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A boy called Courgette accidentally kills his abusive, alcoholic mother. Raymond, a kindly policeman, takes the stricken kiddo to an orphanage, where he meets an assortment of funny characters to put the life back in him. That includes the beautiful, tomboyish Camille – but the little gal’s got baggage too, in the form of a mean, money-grabbing Aunt. Can the orphans save Camille’s future, and will Courgette win her heart?

Worth a watch?

Céline Sciamma won the César for Best Adaptation for her brilliant screenplay (she’s the real deal – two years later bagged Best Screenplay at Cannes for Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu). The kids’ dialogue is tight, authentic and often hilarious, as in the meal scene when new girl Camille meets the orphanage’s bully, Simon (my translation):

SIMON: Hey, new girl, tell us why you’re here.
CAMILLE: You’re the boss, then?
SIMON: Exactly.
CAMILLE: And we have to do whatever you say.
SIMON: That’s right, you got it. See, I do know how to talk to girls.
[The kids laugh nervously]
CAMILLE: Okay. I’m here because my every morning, my mum forced me to go to school in a dinosaur costume.
SIMON: Oh yeah?
[CAMILLE and COURGETTE burst out laughing.]
SIMON [standing]: Are you trying to wind me up? I wouldn’t laugh if I were you.

[ALICE, a small and anxious child, impulsively taps her plate with a fork. CAMILLE calms her with a gesture and gently brushes the hair out of her eyes. The girls smile shyly at each other.]
AHMED: I really love dinosaurs.
SIMON [leaving]: Bunch of idiots.
CAMILLE: See you later, boss!
[Everyone laughs.]

Status change scenes like this early in a movie reinforce our knowledge of the characters and drive the story forward. But I’ve rarely seen one do that as neatly as here, all with a good dollop of silliness. Efficiency is the word, actually. The film clocks in at 63 minutes, and surprisingly little of that is devoted to narrative. Cutting a couple of sub-plots from the original novel, Sciamma dwells on the insecurities and little victories of the rag-tag bunch.

The patience taken by the storytellers means we spend longer enjoying the puppets. The combination of charming stop-motion, comedy and dark mental health themes has an obvious precedent in the Christmas episode of Community (2012), where the autist Abed works through his problems by imagining him and his friends in a frozen animated wasteland. An obvious big budget equivalent is Pixar’s Inside Out (2015), this time with 3D animation. It works well in each of these cases in slightly different ways, the common thread being a good match between form and content.

This harmony is the second big reason the film works so well. The mental health issues of Courgette and his friends are the kind which shatter those simple narratives of a typical child’s worldview – “Mum loves me”; Dad is there for me”; “my home is a safe place”. But the kids had never really experienced that state before coming to the orphanage. The film grants them a simpler world, sometimes sparse and cruel, but more understandable and, given time, more filled with love.

Granted, a bigger budget would have helped elaborate some of the sets, and allowed time for a more satisfying ending. I also would have liked just a touch more experimentation with the medium, like when the kids ski into a snowman, Looney Tunes-style. But because of the high level of craft previously mentioned, channelled by well-cast and well-directed child actors who sound like they’re having a blast, Ma vie de Courgette is still a sure-fire winner. It has genuine appeal for both kids and adults, one of those you can watch again in different settings and still have a giggle (with your gran, your mates, your lover or your neighbour’s kids). Have fun!

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (Beginners).
Language: French. Subtitles in any language you like. Various dubs, including English, freely available.
Availability: This popular international movie should be easily available on- or offline.

Swissness Lab Report: Child Protection Today – A Happy End?

Is Ma vie de Courgette truly Swiss? After all, the novel it’s based on was French. The film adaptation may have a Swiss director and lead actor, and Sophie Hunger on soundtrack duties, but that sparkling dialogue was penned by a Frenchie, and it was shot in Lyon. The Alpine scenes could easily have taken place over the border.

We could question the movie’s Helvetic credentials another way, too. In preparation for this Swissness Lab Report, I watched an SRF documentary on the children of alcoholics in Winterthur. However, like Ma vie de Courgette, the stories here tended to the universal: good people in horrendous situations precipitated by their loved ones’ severe addiction. Courgette’s backstory could have happened in any country with single parents, access to alcohol and flights of stairs in houses.

But the universality of the supportive welfare state is not to be taken for granted when it comes to Switzerland, and for that reason alone Courgette’s case is worth dwelling on and putting, if only as a thought experiment, into a Swiss context. You see, for professional reasons I’ve spent a lot of time recently with extremely nice Swiss social workers who work with children and appear to have healthy respect for the system they’ve been trained into. This goes against pretty much all of the films I’ve reviewed so far.

Already in Heidi (1952) we saw a poor orphan kidnapped and forcibly fostered. Things didn’t get any better in Die Käserei in der Vehfreude (1958) when young Änneli, the Verdingmeitschi, flees her foster home into the arms of her older sister. Flash forward to the nineties, and Switzerland begins to confront its past with Yenish children (Die letzten freien Menschen, 1991); later it will do the same for the generations of indentured child labourers (Der Verdingbub, 2011). But children in awful circumstances are still slipping through the net in the 2010s (L’enfant d’en haut, 2012). Such scenarios are still very popular in Swiss movies – last year’s big hit Platzspitzbaby (“Needle Park Baby”, 2020) was set in the mid-nineties.

Two fundamental reasons for the weak Swiss social welfare system in the twentieth century have been covered on these pages before: firstly, too much responsibility devolved to the communes (Gemeinde), which were often overburdened and run by laypeople, especially in rural areas; secondly, a paternalistic state granting the authorities too much power to remove kids from their families.

But Ma vie de Courgette is different. The state’s interventions, in the form of the police and the orphanage, work well. Conflict arises when Camille’s Aunt tries to claim her in order to get money from the state, but Camille is a part of the negotiations. The adults in the room are reasonable, benevolent experts.

Both of these scenarios can be said to roughly reflect intervention with children today, following the introduction, in 2013, of the Child and Adult Protection Act. In gestation for twenty years, when it finally came out (unopposed in parliament and by the general populous) it shook up the system big time:

  • A child or adult who can’t perform their rights at least gets to choose who does it for them, when possible.
  • Doctors’ power to send people to homes or clinics was drastically reduced.
  • Institutions like children’s homes now have to be regularly inspected.
  • Legal guardians get more rights to help when it’s needed.
  • All of the above meant that laypeople in the Gemeinde were no longer allowed to meddle…

…Which led to the modern-day KESB (Child and Adult Protection Authority, Fr. APEA), a recognizable state institution to a European outsider, professionalized, better regulated and more centralized. Well – kind of. (This being Switzerland, they opened 150 regional authorities.)

But seriously, look at that list above. Hard to believe it took till 2013, right? No wonder all these films on children in dire straits ended up being made.

So yes, the role of the authorities in the movie tallies with the the state of affairs in Switzerland in 2016, when the film came out. That’s not to say the KESB hasn’t had its problems. In 2016, a popular initiative was kickstarted by an SVP politician to reduce the KESB’s power, especially following the murder of two children by a parent who dreaded them being taken away from her again. But the initiative failed to get the requisite 100,000 signatures, and was withdrawn. Something, you assume, must be going right. La vie de Courgette earned its happy end.

A lovely way two spend two minutes of your life: watching the kids of the movie acting out their lines (French).
Not for the first time, this website on the history of social security in Switzerland (German) was an invaluable aid.
This 50 minute documentary on the children of Swiss alcoholics (DE/CH-DE with subtitles) makes a decent, if sobering accompaniment to the movie.
This documentary on the KESB (DE/CH-DE) details some of the controversy mentioned in the last paragraph of my review.

Note on vegetable translation:
I’ve stuck with my favoured British English “courgette” here, even if the international title is the American “zucchini”, because it’s closer to the original French and it matches my own writing.

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