Pop-culture fans probably already have a few emotional associations with severed hands crawling around independently onscreen. The Addams family “pet,” Thing, is a eerie version of the image. Ash’s war against his own possessed hand in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II takes the trope in a gorier direction. Plenty of other horror films have chopped-off hands roaming around attacking people.
But evil hands are almost always at least a little comedic. No matter how much they look like fleshy spiders, no matter how malign their intent, no matter how much they symbolize a terrifying lack of body autonomy or a failure of self-control, they’re inherently a bit goofy. Which is one reason Jérémy Clapin’s animated French directorial debut I Lost My Body is such a startling, moving experience.
Seen partly from the perspective of a severed hand, and partly through flashbacks to the life of the young man it was once attached to, the film finds a kind of skittish melancholy in the idea of a hand crawling around without its owner, a profound loneliness that comes with the sense of being incomplete. I Lost My Body is fundamentally weird and potentially off-putting. But it’s also visually and emotionally beautiful, one of 2019’s most ambitious, engaging films.
The film begins with the hand lying in a pool of spreading blood, at the moment of the incident that cut it free. The nature of that moment won’t become clear until close to the end of the film — instead, Clapin concentrates on the hand’s “awakening” and step-by-step escape from a hospital morgue, as it dodges people and navigates hazards on its way out of the building. In eerie greyscale images, the story drifts back to small, ordinary past moments when the hand was part of a body — holding toys, playing musical instruments, even exploring the gooey depths of a wet nostril.
But eventually, those flashbacks flower into a larger backstory. The hand’s former owner is Naoufel, a young Parisian whose happy childhood was cut short by an event that left him in the care of sullen, indifferent relatives. Now older and working as a pizza-delivery boy, Naoufel is withdrawn, uncommunicative, and shy. A chance encounter with a sharp and stylish girl named Gabrielle leads him to start in on the kind of questionable behavior that’s often rewarded in rom-coms: stalking her, arranging a supposed chance meeting, insinuating himself into her life under false pretenses. Meanwhile, the hand continues its eerie trek across a city full of surprising dangers.
It doesn’t take much effort to connect the hand’s helplessness and isolation with Naoufel’s own manner of living. Neither he nor his hand entirely seems to belong in the world — it’s a creepy and apparently supernatural anomaly, while he’s aimless and indrawn, with no obvious future ahead of him. But the hand is more determined and daring than he is, and unlike him, it seems to have a sense of purpose. Its clear quest to get somewhere and accomplish something makes this story feel like a symbolic fairy tale rather than a simple exercise in surrealism.
The story’s sympathies toward Naoufel shift precariously with each new poor decision he makes. Sometimes he seems like a lonely protagonist in a romantic drama, destined to get the girl and win the day. In other moments, his cowardly, deceptive behavior is hard to respect. Gabrielle, meanwhile, often seems like a distant fantasy rather than a character, though their first conversation hints at a depth of disaffection and separation to match his, or the hand’s. Both of them, thanks to the film’s visual style, are gawky and lean. They’re exaggerated caricatures of people who always look a bit attenuated and ill at ease, and as they move through a Paris full of warm colors and tones, they rarely feel like they belong anywhere they go.
The autonomous, heroic severed hand is perhaps a tipoff that Clapin and co-writer Guillaume Laurant (screenwriter of Amélie, and author of the French novel this film adapts) aren’t planning for this story to slot neatly into any familiar, easily anticipated pigeonholes. They tell even the mundane parts of Naoufel’s story in a sleepy, subjective way, drifting into his dreams, and into reveries that could be from his point of view or the hand’s. Either way, the visions are remarkably evocative — when the hand digs into the sand at the beach, then lets grains of that sand stream out between its fingers, the cinematography is so sharp and the details are so precise, the audience can almost feel the warmth of the sun and the grit under the hand’s fingernails.
And other tiny, telling details help shape the story, too. Some are visual: Naoufel’s shared room at home is barren, apart from a picture of a satellite that suggests a bitter fantasy of escape. The tiny consistent mole on his hand is a constant reminder that the detached body part clambering through the city is his — that this isn’t all some elaborate bait-and-switch.
Other significant details are aural. Naoufel is obsessed with a tape recorder his family gave him long ago, and particularly with reliving one of the worst moments of his life through an accidental audio record of it. Like Blow Out, I Lost My Body repeatedly comes back to the idea of moments captured through sound, then conjured up through repeated, sometimes self-destructive listening. It’s certainly telling both that Naoufel spends so much time tormenting himself with this tape, and that he chooses such a physically passive form of self-destruction. It takes a crisis to move him out of that passivity, and much of the film builds toward that moment, where he finally has to experience something real and immediate, without cowering behind a convenient lie.
But much of I Lost My Body is intense and immediate, not just the climax. The hand’s battle against rats in the Paris Metro is as throat-clenching as a good thriller, and its troubles with a pigeon are startling and grotesque. As the story builds toward the key moments — not so much the discovery of how Naoufel lost his hand, but the question of what came after, and where the hand is headed — Clapin alternates between pensive tension and breathtaking tension. It’s startling how much drama and goodwill he generates out of such a weird and humorous image — a body part crawling around on its own, fighting tiny wars and taking huge risks. It’s enough to make decades of silly severed-hand comedy-horror look more tragic and lovely in retrospect.
I Lost My Body is streaming on Netflix now.