A grim fairy tale that starts mere seconds after a young man in mid-’90s Paris has been violently separated from one of his hands, Jérémy Clapin’s morbid yet profoundly moving debut feature — head and shoulders above any other animated film this year — might be described as a story about someone trying to make themselves whole again. But that wouldn’t quite prepare you for the beguiling strangeness of what this Cannes prize-winner has in store. After all, there’s a reason why Clapin’s film is called “I Lost My Body,” and not “I Lost My Hand”: It’s largely told from the hand’s point-of-view.
We first meet Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris in the French version, and Dev Patel in the English) as he lies on the floor of his workshop. A curious fly buzzes in to investigate, its jeweled red eyes reflecting the blood that continues to spill out of Naoufel’s severed wrist. That’s when Clapin first embarrasses our expectations: Rather than focus on the horror of what’s just happened, he frames the moment with a romantic sense of mourning.
The film thumbs back to Naoufel’s childhood — his memories sketched in black-and-white 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; it’s more Terrence Malick than Todd Solondz. Together, Naoufel and his hand allow each other to feel the world around them. Grains of sand running through his fingers; bath water spreading over his palm; the smooth keys of his mother’s piano submitting to just the slightest hint of pressure. Even then, when he still had all 10 fingers, Naoufel was never able to catch flies. His dad would tell him to “aim for the side! Don’t go for where it is, but for where it will be,” but the lesson is hard to grasp at a time when everything feels within reach.
Clapin, on the other hand (sorry), has no trouble approaching things from unexpected directions. That much is clear from the first scene that follows the opening credits, as the action doesn’t cut back to Naoufel healing in a hospital room, but rather his disembodied hand escaping from the medical refrigerator where it’s been stored. The five-legged appendage skitters over loose organs and eyeballs like a drunken tarantula as it tries to feel its way free, eventually hiding behind a skeleton when someone enters the room.
That may sound like a scene from “The Thing,” but we’re talking about a movie that was co-written by “Amélie” scribe Guillaume Laurant (and based on his 2006 novel, “Happy Hand”), and so you can trust that wistfulness always wins out over horror. The hand is anthropomorphized just enough that it feels like an animal unto itself — like a bird that’s fallen out of the nest. 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 fantasy logic that allows the hand to “see” and “hear” whatever it needs to as the sentient claw breaks out of the hospital and blindly sets out in search of its body.
As deliriously entertaining as it is to watch the sentient claw wrangle a ride on a pigeon (who it promptly chokes to death) and run into some hungry rats underneath the Metro, the hand can’t help but point towards its body. Naoufel soon emerges as a major character unto himself, though his part of the story is set in the days just before the amputation. Even when fully intact, Naoufel is numb to the world. Orphaned by a car crash that only he survived, the boy we met at the start of the movie has grown into a sullen wallflower of an adult (and the worst pizza delivery man in all of Paris). At this point in his Naoufel’s life, things have been so wretched for so long that he feels as if he’s just fated to fade away.
And then, in the most believably magical of the many scenes that betray the disembodied “Amélie” of it all, Naoufel meets a cute librarian named Gabriele (Victoire Du Bois/Alia Shawkat). The buzzer on her apartment door isn’t working — which is just as well, because her pizza has been destroyed — but she and Naoufel get swept away by the conversation they share over the intercom. Sometimes a little separation is all it takes to connect.
From there, Clapin ambidextrously 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. Naoufel isn’t the most engaging of protagonists, but his hand does a lot of the heavy lifting, and the stalker-ish behavior that leads him closer to Gabriele is watered down by the achingly wistful undertow that carries this story along. Naoufel has 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 phenomenal score helps sweep you right along with him, as it thrums with plaintive beauty from start to finish, alternating between spectral ambience and percussive discord like two melodies racing to find each other before the music stops.
The animation occupies a similar middle ground, as Clapin’s appropriately hand-drawn Paris has been illustrated in a way that splits the difference between the storybook glow of “Ratatouille” and the hardscrabble jaundice of “The Triplets of Belleville.” The characters look stilted and unformed against their hyper-detailed backgrounds, a contrast that helps clarify that Naoufel is the one who needs to change.
That personal awakening is ultimately assembled with the airtight perfection of a snow globe, as every element of the film swirls together into a single leap of faith. Viewers hoping for something a bit more concrete might be put off by the abstract way that “I Lost My Body” manages to find itself, 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 within us. But anyone who’s willing to meet this movie on its own terms and roll with the dream logic it requires will be rewarded with a resonantly cathartic saga about the struggle to find beauty in a world that forces us to leave parts of ourselves behind.
“I Lost My Body” is now playing in theaters. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, November 29.