At the 2014 Cartoon Movie co-production forum in Lyon, France, I sat in on a pitch session for the strangest animated feature imaginable. (Remember, this is a medium that has given us square-pantsed sponges and rats who dream of becoming French chefs.) This particular film, an artsy — and, fittingly, hand-drawn — indie titled “J’ai perdu mon corps” (or “I Lost My Body”), would be told from the point of view of a severed hand, separated under ambiguous circumstances, and the epic quest to reunite with its owner. I left Cartoon Movie intrigued but also feeling reasonably certain that this defiantly unconventional project would never see the light of day.
Flash forward five years, and “I Lost My Body” not only exists but screened to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was acquired by Netflix and won the top prize in Critics’ Week. In its finished form, director Jérémy Clapin’s peculiar undertaking (adapted from the novel “Happy Hand,” by Guillaume Laurant) is even stranger than it sounded to me half a decade earlier, and yet, there’s no question he’s pulled it off. In fact, I’d hazard to say it’s one of the most original and creative animated features I’ve ever seen: macabre, of course — how could it be otherwise, given the premise? — but remarkably captivating and unexpectedly poetic in the process.
It’s that rare cinematic experience whose every second feels like a discovery, as Clapin and co-writer Laurant invent an entirely new kind of mystery, one in which the entity doing the detective work — you’ve heard of private eyes; well, here we have a private hand — can’t speak, and the ensuing missing person investigation turns out to be a search for, well, himself. The film opens with a black-and-white vignette depicting a young boy, Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris), attempting to catch a housefly, while his intellectual father offers him pro tips from across the room. This is a curious memory for a boy to have, but not so for the hand itself, as the recollection seems to be one of the earliest souvenirs the otherwise amnesiac appendage has of its previous life.
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Audiences don’t know it yet, but practically every detail in the film has significance, and Naoufel’s fly-catching lesson will make sense later, as the winged pest becomes one of many motifs to which Clapin and Laurant return — seemingly at random but actually always by design — in their intricately braided narrative. Desperate for anything to orient us in a film that uses what we don’t yet know about its characters to repeatedly subvert our expectations, we study these flashbacks for clues. (Note that the rest of this review could spoil some of the film’s surprises.)
Eased ever deeper by Dan Levy’s mesmerizing score (a stellar solo effort by one-half of indie electro-pop duo The Dø), audiences gradually discover that Naoufel is a Moroccan orphan whose parents died in a car crash, and who moved to Paris, where he worked as a lowly pizza delivery boy until such time as he met Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), a hipster Gen Z librarian who gives his life purpose. Crippled by shyness — but not yet handicapped by it — he follows Gabrielle to her uncle’s carpentry studio, spontaneously asking for work as an apprentice.
None of that — certainly not the naive young romance that emerges at the heart of the mystery — seems to follow from the macabre scene in which Naoufel’s hand emerges from a medical lab refrigerator, improvising its escape across the floor, clawing its way up a hospital skeleton and launching itself out the window. Rather, we might be inclined to think that some kind of crime has been committed (the missing body may even have been murdered) and that it’s up to the hand to solve the case. But Clapin insists on our patience, for now, following these single-minded digits on a journey … where?
As further memories flood back — of Naoufel’s hand fumbling through piano lessons, feeling the breeze through an open car window — the reanimated limb faces daunting challenges in the present. Taken for granted in its time, but now driven as if by instinct (which can prove grisly at times), the hand hitches a ride via stray pigeon, snapping the bird’s neck when done. It’s understandably freaked out by the escalator that leads down to the subway, where it grabs a fallen lighter to defend itself against the feral rats. And at one point, it even fools a blind man’s dog into retrieving it during a game of fetch at the park.
Audiences have seen disembodied hands in films before — whether it’s “The Beast With Five Fingers” or Thing of “The Addams Family” — but never as such a sympathetic protagonist. Here, the hand has one goal — to find Naoufel — but that potential reunion isn’t what drives us. We want to know how the hand came to be separated, and as we learn more about its owner, we also wish to know what became of his head and his heart. If Naoufel is still alive, did he wind up with Gabrielle?
The film doesn’t offer anything even remotely close to a conventional resolution, choosing instead to end its journey with a scene that pays off recurring elements that have been threaded through the movie until now: Naoufel’s obsession with igloos, his childhood cassette recorder, the view of the city from an abandoned building and a dare, expressed to Gabrielle from that very same rooftop, to try the sort of “totally irrational” feat it takes to upset destiny. That’s the significance of a last scene that, without answering anything, opens up a kind of infinite, unscripted realm of possibility to Clapin’s characters. On one hand, it’s a profound — and profoundly ambiguous — ending, considering that we can never know what the future holds. On the other … oh wait, there is no other hand.