A dark fairy tale that starts mere seconds after a young man in 1990s Paris has been violently separated from one of his hands, Jérémy Clapin’s morbid yet deeply moving debut feature might be described as a story about someone trying to make themselves whole again. But that wouldn’t exactly prepare you for the enchanting strangeness of what this movie has in store. After all, the movie is called I Lost My Body, not “I Lost My Hand.” And there’s a reason for that, that reason being that this film is largely told from the point-of-view of the hand.
We first meet Naofel (voiced by Hakim Faris) as he lies on the floor of his workshop. A curious fly soon buzzes into the shop to investigate, its jeweled red eyes reflecting the blood that continues to spill out of Naoufel’s severed wrist. It’s in this moment when Clapin first flips our expectations: rather than focusing on the horror of what’s happening, he frames the moment with a romantic sense of mourning. The film then flashes back to Naoufel’s childhood — his memories all in black-and-white almost as if they were drawn in pencil — and lets us in on the love story between a boy and his hand. No, not like that. Together, Naoufel and his hand allow each other to feel the world around them. Grains of sand running through his fingers; the smooth keys of his mother’s piano submitting to just the slightest touch of pressure. Even then, when he still had all ten fingers, Naoufel was never able to catch flies, even with his dad suggesting to him how. Throughout this entire movie Clapin seemingly approaches things from unexpected directions. Seen prevalently in the first scene that follows the opening credits, as the action doesn’t cut back to Naoufel in the hospital, but rather his disembodied hand escaping from a medical refrigerator where it’s been stored. The hand skitters over loose organs and eyeballs like a drunk spider, trying to learn how to walk and break free, eventually even hiding behind a skeleton when a human enters the room.
Even though that scene may seem like it, this movie isn’t anything like The Thing, it’s written by Clapin and Amélie screenwriter Guillaume Laurent (and based on Laurent’s 2006 novel, Happy Hand), so you can trust that the movie leans into the wistfulness more than the horror. The hand itself is anthropomorphized just the right amount that it feels like an animal all on its own — it impressively conveys emotion throughout, in the most subtle of ways. It seems to find its way around by feel, but Clapin doesn’t want you to think about that too hard; his film subscribes to a satisfying dream logic that allows the hand to “see” and “hear” whatever it needs to. As the hand movies throughout the city, having its encounters with pigeons and rats, it can’t help but point towards it body. Naoufel soon emerges as a co-protagonist, his part of the story set in the days just before the amputation. Even when fully intact, Naoufel is numb to the world. Orphaned after a family tragedy that he survived, the boy we met at the start of the movie has grown into solitary adult (and the worst pizza delivery man in all of Paris). At this point in his life, things have been so wretched for so long that he feels as if he’s just fated to fade away.
But then Naoufel meets a cute librarian named Gabriele (Victoire Du Bois) while delivering her pizza. The buzzer on her apartment door isn’t working but she and Naoufel get swept away by the conversation they share over the intercom. From there, Clapin cuts between these two different timelines, as I Lost My Body develops into a bittersweet two-hander about one man’s life and what he’s lost along the way. At moments Naoufel isn’t the most engaging of protagonists, but his hand gets a lot of the work done. Naoufel seems to have been conditioned to feel as if his life is out of his hands, and so he follows the currents even when they lead him where he isn’t wanted. Dan Levy’s great score hits right on that, sweeping you right along with him, alternating between spectral ambience and percussive dissonance.
The animation occupies a similar middle ground, as Clapin’s appropriately hand-drawn Paris has been illustrated in a way that has both a storybook glow and a hardscrabble look. But what makes I Lost My Body special is the personal awakening for Naoufel that’s ultimately assembled, as every element of the film swirls together into a single leap of faith. Viewers hoping for something a bit more concrete might by put off by the abstract way that I Lost My Body manages to find its identity, and Clapin’s fixation on a fable-like tone makes it hard for his characters to break free from the feelings they’re meant to stir up from within you. But anyone who’s willing to buy-in is in for something special — a moving saga about the struggle to find beauty in a world that forces us to leave parts of ourselves behind. As imaginative a work of animation as you’re likely to see, the mournful I Lost My Body is a romance, a macabre comedy, a character study, but most importantly, it’s a cathartic saga of someone trying to become whole again.
I Lost My Body is available to stream on Netflix (in the U.S.) now!