At the end of 2019, The Telegraph published an article with the headline “First Human Head Transplant May Be Just a Decade Away”. The headline conjures the image of a patient getting a new head, like a person can receive a new liver. But surely in a decade people will not be getting new heads, after a head injury; that would just replace the injured person with someone else. It’s our heads that may have the option of getting new bodies after a bodily injury. “First Body Transplant May Be Just a Decade Away” is the right headline.
What fun, though, to imagine things differently. It’s at least imaginable that a body could need a new head, instead of a head needing a new body. In fact, we can picture a small part of the body in need of the rest — a severed hand needing the rest of what constitutes a human body, for example. This is the premise of the French animated movie “I Lost My Body” (directed by Jérémy Clapin). The “I” of the title is the hand. The hand wants a body, but not just any body. It wants the body it was originally joined to.
The very soulful and sorrowful hand that’s the star of this movie was severed in an accident and escaped the refrigerator of a lab. Now, after the tragedy, it’s on the loose, seeking reunification with its lost body, and meeting up with enemies and friends along the way.
I should say up front that this film is almost impossible to understand on one viewing. It’s a puzzle movie that’s continually puzzling. The most crucial scene runs behind the initial credits, when we’re still busy turning off our phones or taking off our coats. We see the accident and who suffers it, but so briefly that it’s not obvious that the next scenes are flashbacks to the hand-owner’s life as a child. Or rather, to the life of the hand — undetached from a young Moroccan immigrant named Naoufel.
The severed hand escapes from the fridge and makes its way out of a window. It’s a stealthy, resourceful, sensitive, and graceful hand — beautifully drawn and animated — but must survive in the dangerous streets of Paris. The flashbacks to early life continue. A horrific event derails the idyllic life that Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris) lived as a young boy. The whole movie is suffused in sadness, partly thanks to a sorrowful electronic score (Dan Levy). And yet it’s constantly witty. A detached hand with a human personality is an amusing hand. It strangles a pigeon, scuttles around with a can on its back like a hermit crab, stands up to rats, clings to the underbelly of a train, listens to music, makes friends with a baby, all the while desperately seeking the rest of Naoufel.
The story of what led up to the hand being severed starts well into the movie. Lonely and neglected, mistreated by all, incompetent as a delivery boy, Naoufel is finally treated with kindness by Gabrielle, who has ordered a pizza. He can’t bring himself to make friends with the beautiful young librarian directly, so gets himself hired as her uncle’s apprentice. It turns out he’s a genius at woodworking and, responding to a remark Gabrielle makes about igloos, makes a wooden igloo on top of an apartment building. He’s clever, creative, resourceful … and, well, evidently doomed.
The two timelines finally meet — one the hand’s story, which starts at the time of the accident. The other, whole-Naoufel’s story. He says the wrong thing to Gabrielle and one thing leads to another. He seems to lose his only chance at love and happiness. He also loses his hand … or the hand loses him.
Is this a philosophical movie about fate? Maybe. There’s certainly a lot of talk about fate, and Naoufel does feel doomed by fate. Try as he does to overcome the early tragedies and cruelties of his life, bad things keep happening to him.
A reviewer for the New York Times says the movie is too “nauseating” and “unnerving” to enjoy, but no — it’s too beautiful and ingenious to miss. In fact, the movie finds the beauty in things — in flies and insects, in blood, in the world that would be visible to a sensitive ambulatory hand, in a crane that stands next to an apartment building. The puzzling nature of the movie also keeps us continually trying to figure out what’s happening, not overwhelmed by the grim twists and turns.
What’s more troubling than the gore is the sad life of Naoufel. Things go very wrong for him at every turn. Just when he seems to have prevailed, things go even worse. And yet he takes a great leap forward at a crucial point in the movie. And he has a hand that’s determined to make him whole again. The movie takes us right to the edge of total despair but leaves us not forced to believe that Naoufel is doomed. Perhaps there is hope.