CANNES  — Jeremy Clapin’s feature debut “I Lost My Body” follows Naoufel, a young man who moves to France, falls in love and tries to create a new life.  Then in a parallel storyline, it follows Naoufel’s severed hand, which runs, jumps and rolls across Paris in an attempt to find the rest of its body. The fact that these timelines are not quite simultaneous creates a tension that escalates as the film goes on – and pays off in unexpectedly emotional ways.

The film earned stellar reviews upon its premier last Friday, and has been the talk of the festival ever since. On Wednesday night it took top honors at Critics’ Week, where it was the sole French entry in competition. Following its Cannes success, Clapin’s sophisticated offering will head to Annecy in June and seems certain to have a long and fruitful festival life ahead.

The film has a unique narrative structure: One strand follows Naoufel’s hand as it tries to find the rest of its body, while the other strand follows Naoufel before losing the appendage.

The idea was not to tell the story of a man who loses a hand, but of a hand that loses a body. And so we follow a very classic film template – the story two characters made for one another but separated by destiny. They begin together, get separated by fate and have to find one another anew. Only for us, the film doesn’t start at the very beginning of this template; it starts at the moment of separation. And as the hand makes it way through the city, we travel through its memories of the life it shared with Naoufel. And in the Naoufel scenes, he’s never presented without his hand in the shot – in a way he’s always framed from his hand’s perspective. So when the hand finds him, in a way, so do we.

As you can imagine for a film with two stories in one, the project was very difficult to describe. We wanted to create a dialogue between these two narrative threads, because the hand trying to get back to its body is a kind of love story, and there’s the more traditional one between Naoufel and Gabrielle. So we wanted to create echoes between the two, to play them off each other.

You said you made Naoufel an amateur sound recordist as a way to link the two narrative strands. Could you explain?

While working on the script, I tried to figure out how I could connect the sensorial experience of the hand – which is still a mute and inexpressive character – to Naoufel’s past and that story. How could I create a resonance between them? I figured that a really detailed soundscape could bridge that gap, linking the two and putting them in contact. The hand experiences the world in a very tactile way, so we wanted Naoufel to experience things in equally sensorial and sound-driven manner. I tried to develop that vocabulary and landed on the idea that he could observe the world via an audio recorder, just like the hand experience things via the tips of its fingers.

In animation, you often have to play with the sound in order to make your fantastical images come to life. You know what kind of impact sound can have, because it accounts for 50% of your work.

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Was it difficult turning a severed hand into a dynamic and appealing character?

It was challenging, no doubt, but I like that kind of challenge. It forced us to create a new vocabulary, a mise-en-scene that would allow the hand to express emotion without the benefit of a face. When I started the animation tests I was very quickly able to figure what worked and what didn’t. The camera always had to stay close to the hand and close to its contact with the ground. We had to forbid certain angles, either because they were too grotesque or too hard to make sense of. Similarly, we tried to avoid certain positions as well. A tightly clenched, for example, wouldn’t really tell us much or be that interesting. We needed positions and postures that humanize it, and the same time, we knew the fingers could also function as a head or a tail or a pair of legs when we needed them to. The hand and fingers had to be something like a Swiss Army knife, but all of that had to come naturally – ideally, the viewer wouldn’t be conscious that the function had changed.

In some ways, the only other precedent is the hand from “The Addams Family.”

It’s a point of reference I’d hoped to avoid! [Laughs] Of course, I know that’s the first thing people will think of when they hear about the project, but I hope they have a difference image after seeing the film. For one thing, the hand is more of a gag in “The Adams Family,” without much character depth. And I wanted the hand to move in a very different way. In “The Addams Family” the hand mostly moves laterally across the floor, whereas I wanted mine to explore the world with absolute freedom, and to really benefit from the absence of a body attached to it.

To really emphasize that freedom, you did develop a lot of chases and action scenes.

Those ideas arrived fairly late in the game. My shorts were more static and psychological in nature, and I had never done an action sequence before. Of course, I’m huge fan of action films, but there’s often a difference between what you watch and what you make.  However, when I started animating, I realized that the hand became more interesting whenever we threw it into an extreme situation. There was no point in framing from afar or being too aloof. Instead we borrowed genre codes and approaches to keep things dynamic and intense. Really, it was a very natural outgrowth of the very concept of the film, because the hand is entirely defined by its own actions and movement.

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The film presents a very different view of Paris from the one seen in “Amélie,” another film your collaborator Guillaume Laurant co-wrote.

I wanted to avoid at all costs those traditional depictions. I’ve lived in the city and in the nearby suburbs, and I’ve never known the Paris of “Amélie.” I like the Paris that’s always under construction, where the poetry doesn’t come from postcard views but from urban life. Abandoned yards speak to me a lot more than beautiful buildings, so I wanted to explore the city in a more offbeat way, because this is the Paris discovered by the hand. The hand often has to hide in dark corners and deal with grimy situations; it moves through its environment in a different way, so we depict that environment differently as well.

The film has developed a lot of buzz in France, and is the sole French entry to play in competition in Critics’ Week, which is a rare honor for an animated film. 

It’s tough to make animated films for adults, especially when the films don’t fall into certain accepted boxes or frameworks. Those films often have to take place in certain settings or deal with certain subjects, notably war. As soon as you try to get out of those contexts you lose legitimacy in certain people’s eyes. They’ll ask why you don’t make it live action instead.

As an animator, you have a lot of freedom to explore subjects with greater maturity when making a short, but you make features on a more industrial scale. They require larger crews and higher budgets, and that makes a lot of people overly cautious towards projects like this.

I wish it were easier to finance projects that could put audiences on edge, and that don’t fit neatly into any one box. The industry has to move forward together. We need more producers and distributors willing to take chances, willing to stop self-censoring. Do all animated films need to appeal to children? No way. Do all images have to be pretty? Maybe not. We have to deal with those questions in order to evolve. And I hope that this film does what it can to push that conversation forward.

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