It takes a little while to meet the main character of French animator Jérémy Clapin’s extraordinary, dreamlike I Lost My Body; first, we get to know our protagonist’s previous owner. That would be Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris — or Dev Patel if you opt for the dubbed alternative, though trust us when we say that you’ll want the original-recipe version), a young Franco-Arabic man in Paris. Soon, via flashbacks, we’ll watch him go from a happy, sound-obsessed child to a sullen twentysomething scarred by tragedy; he now lives with his aloof uncle and alpha-bro cousin in the City of Light, delivering pizzas and taking shit from his boss. Life is not good for Naoufel. And judging from the elliptical shots of broken spectacles, blood splatterings and a concerned older man, something particularly bad has just gone down.
Then we’re properly introduced to the character who’ll take the real hero’s journey. It is a disembodied hand. Severed at the wrist, the phantom limb scurries along on its dexterous digits like The Addams Family‘s Thing T. Thing. And nothing can stop this body part from getting where it needs to go — not angry birds, hungry vermin, speeding subway cars, strong winds, severe falls or garbage bins. It will brave obstacles and embark upon a long, arduous quest to reunite with its lovelorn former host, one let-your-fingers-do-the-walking sprint at a time.
An animator whose style falls somewhere between mid-Nineties anime and vintage Ralph Bakshi, Clapin has an incredible sense of both visual wit and the surreal — a scene of ants attacking our metacarpal friend is both a nightmare in miniature and a sly Buñuel in-joke — and knows how to pace his pathos. By running parallel narratives and switching between Naoufel becoming smitten with a librarian named Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois) and the hand’s desperate attempts to avoid being spotted or becoming something’s lunch, you’re constantly having to figure out what’s happening where, when, why. It’s a gambit, and a mostly successful one, even when things threaten to take a turn for le twee. (The screenplay is cowritten by Amelie scribe Guillame Laurant, which you may consider either a feature or a bug.)
But it also allows the film to play around with a multitude of different tones and emotional scales, ranging from totally repulsive to tender. It’s a romance, a thriller, a macabre comedy and a PTSD character study without ever feeling like a patchwork. Recurring motifs like soundscapes and buzzing flies help connect the back and forth. (Huge shout-out to composer Dan Levy, whose techno-propulsive score switches moods on a dime yet also keeps a sense of consistency running throughout.) As Clapin keeps dropping in black-and-white sequences of Naoufel’s formative years with his parents, it becomes apparent that he’s also telling a touching story about what we take with us from childhood. Almost every one of the lad’s memories center around his hands, from letting beach sand slip through his fingers to tickling the ivories. No one can accuse this film of not being thematically on point at all times.
And once everything converges into a single timeline and I Lost My Body plays every one of its hands (sorry) so viewers get the complete picture, you begin to understand exactly how deftly Clapin and company have been playing the long game. It’s a tale of someone trying to become whole again, literally and figuratively. You may also feel so exhilarated watching an insanely creative voice in animation flex his storytelling muscles that you don’t realize the huge lump in your throat. The fact that it’s a crawling hand that’s inspiring your heart to skip beats only makes things that much more impressive.