Much recent critical literature on cinematic representations of childhood explores the ways in which contemporary cinema bears witness to “a new recognition of the imbrication of children’s lives with the political”1 This is strikingly evident in Ma Vie de Courgette/My Life as a Courgette (Barras, 2016). While much focus on representations of childhood onscreen has tended to prioritise live action films, My Life as a Courgette is a full-length animated feature, taking full advantage of the possibilities offered up by the “apparently unguarded space” of animation2 to show children as individuals who are trying to make sense of their place as  “small subject[s] in transition, moving towards adulthood”3

What further distinguishes My Life as a Courgette is the fundamental centrality of the child’s perspective. Adult characters are present and important but its narrative evolves predominantly at what we might describe as ‘child-height’, foregrounding “the minutiae and clarity of a child’s eye view”4 and using what the film’s screenwriter Céline Sciamma has referred to as “the logic of children’s thinking”5. Crucially, our view of the world these children inhabit is often shot with the children in centre-frame, with their adult counterparts only partially visible unless and until camera angles adjust to bring them more fully into shot. It is the child-protagonists who have agency here and whose striving to understand the world around them drives the narrative. 

Using stop-motion puppet animation, Oscar-nominated My Life as a Courgette centres on ‘domestic’ sociopolitics, as Swiss director Claude Barras examines the experiences of 10-year-old ‘Courgette’ who ends up in a children’s home having accidentally killed his mother. The film aligns us with the child’s perspective from the outset. We see a young blue-haired boy drawing, alone, in an attic room, sprawled on a floor covered with colouring pencils and empty beer cans, adding the finishing touches to a home-made kite. He briefly ventures downstairs where we hear (but do not see) his mother hurling insults and a beer can at the TV. The boy returns to the attic, stretching up on a little wooden chair to build dozens of empty beer cans into a perilously balanced tower that, inevitably, crashes to the ground, sending cans tumbling down the stairs. His mother shouts angrily, berating the boy for making a mess she will have to tidy. As she climbs the stairs, the boy throws the attic trapdoor shut. We hear a fall, then silence. A few moments later, the camera is on the opposite side of the closed trapdoor, looking upwards as it is eased open and we see Courgette’s exaggeratedly large eyes peer down, scanning the bottom of the stairs and coming to rest on something that we are not shown. He throws the trapdoor shut again and the camera cuts to an image of him cowering on the attic floor. 

This brief opening attic sequence soon gives way to more conventional spaces of childhood, reminding us that, typically, “childhood happens at home, in playgrounds, in classrooms or in the fantasy worlds of a child’s ambition”6. For Courgette, the classroom is part of the children’s home and it is depicted in a similarly supportive way to the rest of the background institutional environment which we see as a site of “reconstruction, of sentimental education, of the collective, of care”7. It is also shown as a space that enables the children to go well beyond the experiences that have led them to the orphanage. We observe, for example, a lesson on prehistory and the evolution of human beings, but we also witness the children’s joy and excitement when they are taken on a skiing trip. Through the lesson on prehistory, the children are encouraged to see themselves as part of a wider humanity, while the skiing trip offers them unfamiliar sensory experiences and comparative freedom from institutional structures. In neither instance, though, is the educational environment depicted as being an idealised space of personal learning and growth. The lesson about human evolution is interrupted by another child (Jujube) whose mother suffered from serious mental health problems, vomiting up the toothpaste he had eaten in copious amounts that morning. The trip to the snowy mountains sees another of the children (Ahmed) wrongfully accused of theft by the mother of another child at the resort, and a particularly poignant moment when the children look on in amazement as a parent consoles their child after a fall.

For Courgette, while the traditional ‘family home’ does not offer security we nevertheless understand the importance of the domestic sphere in the lives of the children. Once Courgette has been introduced to the director of the home, Madame Papineau, and the other staff members, he is shown to the bedroom he will share with the other male children. They all have the same basic items of furniture (a bed, a wardrobe, a drawer) but we also see that each has personalised their corner of the room, creating their own space with posters, books, toys on the floor and different bedspreads. As Courgette quickly settles into life in his new home, he decorates the walls around his bed with his drawings and we understand these corners of the shared room become individual safe spaces for the children. They are, at once, a refuge, a space within which they can express themselves and forge their own identity and a source of security and calm.

The children’s ‘fantasy worlds’ and the ways in which they use those ‘fantasy worlds’ as a further means of making sense of lived experience are also important, and the imagined possibility of flight plays a key role. As mentioned above, we are introduced to Courgette as he finishes off the drawings on a home-made kite. It is movement downwards that brings us our only encounters with Courgette’s mother and, of course, it is movement downwards that ultimately brings about her death. Movement upwards, on the other hand, seems to offer Courgette precarious possibility – he teeters on the wooden chair to build the beer can, he ties the string of the kite to the leg of the chair in the attic and sends it soaring. The kite itself is adorned with two drawings. On one side, we have a male superhero representing Courgette’s vision of his absent father, complete with cape and mask, while the other side has a drawing of a chicken which Courgette later explains is because his mother told him his father “aimait trop les poules” (“liked chicks too much”). It is the kite (along with an empty beer can) that Courgette takes with him to the children’s home and that he fights over with a slightly older child, Simon, on Courgette’s first morning there. Much later, when Courgette and Camille are fostered together, the kite comes to symbolise the possibility of contentment as we watch the pair, through the window of Courgette’s new bedroom, playing with the kite together; the drawing of the chicken almost entirely obscured by a photo of all the children from the home taken on the day Courgette and Camille left. This depiction of flight is not used as a simple indication of a desire to escape. Instead, what flight represents is an untethering from physical, material constraints and a reminder that a space can be found in which imagined or allegorical responses to political realities can play out.

In short, Ma Vie de Courgette explores what happens when you remove adult mediation for significant sections of a cinematic narrative, and when you opt not to construct a hierarchy that would divide the experiences, fears and anxieties of adults from those of children. It does so by taking full advantage of the “potentially radical vocabulary” of animation8, in order to give space and give voice to a child-height narrative that unfolds as much in the material, lived realities Courgette and his friends as it does in their imaginations and fantasies.

Ma Vie de Courgette (My Life as a Courgette, Switzerland, France, 2016, 66 mins)

Prod Co: Rita Productions, Blue Spirit Animation, Gébéka Films, KNM Prod: Eric Beckman, Marc Bonny, Armelle Glorennec, Pauline Gygax Dir: Claude Barras Scr: Céline Sciamma Phot: David Toutevoix Ed: Valentin Rotelli Mus: Sophie Hunger

Cast: Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Paulin Jaccoud, Michel Vuillermoz, Raul Ribera, Estelle Hennard, Elliot Sanchez, Lou Wick


  1. Wilson, Emma. 2005. ‘Children, Emotion and Viewing in Contemporary European Film.’ Screen 46:3 (Autumn), p. 332
  2. Wells, Paul. 1998. Understanding Animation. Abingdon & New York: Routledge, p. 6
  3. Wilson, op cit, p. 333
  4. Donald, Stephanie Hemelryk, Emma Wilson and Sarah Wright. 2017. ‘Introduction: Nation, Film, Child.’ In Donald, Wilson and Wright (eds.) Childhood and Nation in Contemporary World Cinema. Borders and Encounters. New York & London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 5
  5. Périllon, Thomas. 2016. ‘Claude Barras et Céline Sciamma: Entretien.’ Le Bleu du miroir. www.lebleudumiroir.fr/claude-barras-et-celine-sciamma/
  6. Donald, Wilson & Wright, op cit, p. 9
  7. Gautherin, Laure. 2016. ‘Céline Sciamma: “Ma Vie de Courgette, c’est une flèche en plein cœur” (Interview exclusive).’ Au féminin. October 19, www.aufeminin.com/sorties-cinema/celine-sciamma-ma-vie-de-courgette-c-est-une-fleche-en-plein-c-ur-s2018615.html
  8. Wells, op cit, p. 188

About The Author

Cristina Johnston is Senior Lecturer in French at the University of Stirling (GB). She works primarily on contemporary French cinema, with a specific focus on gender and sexualities. Her most recent work has focused on Céline Sciamma's films, including an article entitled 'The Queer Circulation of Objects in the Films of Céline Sciamma' in 2021, but she has also published work on French banlieue cinema and on transatlantic stardom focusing on figures such as Jean Reno and Catherine Deneuve, as well as a book entitled French Minority Cinema (Rodopi, 2011).

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