“Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?”Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Touch — the act of physical contact we so often employ to express that which cannot be put into words — places us, reminding us of who we are and where we’ve been. Skin, as its conduit, is a kind of fleshy upholstery that opens us up to the world. We shake hands, caress, hold hands — all to say ‘hello’, ‘I love you’, ‘I’m here’. Skin, as Sara Ahmed muses in her book Strange Encounters, “allows us to think of how the materialisation of bodies involves, not containment, but an affective opening out of bodies to other bodies, in the sense that the skin registers how bodies are touched by others.”
In Jeremy Clapin’s J’ai Perdu Mon Corps, touch is the film’s driving force. Adapted from the 2006 novel Happy Hand by Guillame Laurent, it follows the story of Naoufel, a young man who loses his hand in a horrific accident. Using only touch, his severed hand manoeuvres itself through a perilous Paris, clinging to pigeons, battling off metro rats, and scaling buildings. The film is animated, a budget-conscious choice no doubt, but also an artistic choice that makes it easier to buy into its fantastical premise. Modelled after 3D forms that were later digitally enhanced, the animations are technically brilliant, and afford an intimate rendering of Clapin’s vision that I’m not sure would have had the same effect had he created a live-action film.
Classic horror movie fodder, the disembodied hand could have easily led the film into gory terrain. In J’ai Perdu Mon Corps, however, the severed hand is less creepy appendage and more an affect-charged look at grief, loneliness, and memory. The objects the hand encounters on its journey serve as portals into its pre-severed existence, as we are fed snippets of Naoufel’s life via flashback.
In these moments, we see Naoufel as a young boy, declaring proudly to his parents that he would like to be both a pianist and an astronaut when he grows up. We learn that he was orphaned young, losing his parents in a car accident. He moves to Paris, renting from a cruel landlord and sharing a room with a buffoonish chad. As a pizza delivery boy, he meets and falls for Gabrielle, a young librarian. Their first exchange is entirely verbal, taking place over her apartment intercom (as one review describes it, “the most memorable meet cute in recent cinema”). Without spoiling too much, the hand’s journey across Paris is spurred by this search for Gabrielle, with whom Naoufel had screwed things up prior to his accident.
I saw J’ai Perdu Mon Corps in a Parisian cinema while studying abroad. A little homesick and touch-starved, I felt myself bristle with longing at the film’s affect-charged reminders about what it is to touch and to be touched. Paris, like all big cities, can be terrifying. Sure, there’s the heady romance that most people associate with the so-called city of love. But if the film does teeter into horror territory, the source of terror isn’t the chopped-off hand, but the hostility of life in a city. As the film progressed, I even came to see the hand as a cute little animal, rooting for it as it battled off ruthless rats or traversed four lanes of traffic.
Though these action-fuelled scenes move at breakneck speed, they’re broken up by snippets of Naoufel’s past. Flashbacks here serve as deep exhales, slowing the pace of the film down to create room for meditations on the quiet intimacy of touch. Clapin has a knack for stretching out time, allowing us to rest briefly within the comfort of a warm moment before snapping us back into the heart-racing centre of the film. In one such scene, our disembodied protagonist has been picked up by an unwitting dog and carried into the apartment of a blind pianist. Drawn to the sounds of the piano, it rests for a moment atop its hood, remembering its unrealised dream. The hand even indulges itself in a fantasy, picturing itself watching Naoufel at the helm of a grand piano in a concert hall. When the pianist reaches for a drink but grabs the hand instead, the pace of the scene switches instantly as the hand finds itself under attack from a loyal guard dog.
Fleeing the threat, it scampers to the next apartment — that of a young mother. It’s taking shelter next to the crib of her sleeping baby when suddenly it drops its dummy. The hand scuttles to pick it up and to return it to the baby’s mouth. Sensing a warm body nearby, the baby instinctively furls its tiny digits around a finger. A scene that could seem so horrific — sleeping baby, amputated hand — becomes one of the film’s most striking moments. When we’re born, we’re thrust from a quiet darkness into light and noise. Terror reigns over our initial months. Eventually, however, terror softens to wonder as touch serves as silent tour guide.
By constructing the film largely through flashback, Clapin reminds us how skin can be an affective membrane for memory. The prick of a thorn on a rose, the marvellous feeling of sifting hot sand through one’s fingers — even the disgusting delight of picking one’s nose. With these memories, Clapin expertly shifts between the present and past. When the severed hand hits the ground hard after falling several stories from a building, the scene cuts to Naoufel falling as a baby. To touch is to remember, Clapin suggests.
We see a similar thing at work in the film’s opening, which takes place in Naoufel’s childhood home in Morocco. Shot almost entirely in close-up and contextualised by his and his father’s voices, we watch a young Naoufel as he tries to catch a fly. “The trick” his father says, “is to wait until the fly rubs its legs together. Then, you take it by surprise”. Nimbly avoiding Naoufel’s clutches, the fly serves as a shepherd of sorts, landing on a sheet of music and then a toy astronaut — symbols of his childhood aspirations. From this scene of childhood adventure, we return to the severed hand lying inert on the laboratory floor. A fly preys on the hand’s congealed blood, taunting it, as if the hand itself is recalling the opening scene.
In many of the film’s flashback sequences, we see young Naoufel obsessed with his tape recorder. Like a miniature field scientist or recording artist, he registers the buzzing of flies, his conversations, or his mother’s cello performances. He’s recording a car trip with his parents when the fateful accident occurs. After the car crash, he gives up recording entirely, keeping the tape recorder with him only to revisit the past. A press of a button is all that is needed to reinhabit a time and place other than his own. This old cassette player is an encoded thing — material, physical — a thing which we navigate through touch to access the immaterial. His memories are stored in the flesh, not just the mind. The Cartesian binary pitting body against mind ignores how embodied thought and affect can be. As Oyeronke Oyewumi asserts in Visualising the Body:
“‘Bodylessness’ has been a precondition of rational thought. Women, primitives, Jews, Africans, the poor, and all those who qualified for the label “different” in varying historical epochs have been considered to be embodied, dominated therefore by instinct and affect, reason being beyond them. They are the Other, and the Other is a body.”
This condition of bodylessness is shown to be paradoxical in J’ai Perdu Mon Corps. Obviously, Naoufel is quite literally bodyless (the film’s title translates to I Lost My Body in English). At the same time, as a brown person of colour, as an immigrant, as an orphan, as working class, he’s dismissed as Other; as embodied and not bodyless. Rather than simply contest the condescending assertion that reason is beyond the capabilities of the Other, Clapin shows that instinct, affect, and embodiment can be radical. Pitted against the clinical rationality of capitalist cities and the bodies that govern it, he suggests that to feel is the way out.
The other day I scrolled back through some of my texts to friends around the time I saw J’ai Perdu Mon Corps. Most of them were something to the tune of ‘just want forehead kiss 🥺’ or ‘I miss you so much just wanna cuddle you’. This is, admittedly, quite an embarrassing thing to reveal online. But it’s also indicative of how untethered I was feeling at the time. When you’re in a foreign city, especially one as heady, and cold, and fast-paced as Paris, it can quite literally feel like you’ve lost your body. But like the chopped-off hand in J’ai Perdu Mon Corps, every now and then you touch and are reminded: I’m still here.
J’ai Perdu Mon Corps (I Lost My Body) is now available on Netflix.
Lauren Ironmonger is a writer working on Gadigal land whose favourite film of 2019 was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She just got back from 6 months in Paris where she spent a lot of time crying in cinemas.