Michel Gondry's new special effect: His aunt

The "Eternal Sunshine" visionary talks about his curious, moving family documentary and its unlikely star

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 4, 2010 9:01PM (EDT)

Michel Gondry (inset) and a still from his documentary, "The Thorn in the Heart."
Michel Gondry (inset) and a still from his documentary, "The Thorn in the Heart."

You can see Michel Gondry here and there in the background of his family documentary, "The Thorn in the Heart" -- he might be described as a minor character in his own film -- and he's always quiet and at attention, even amid a crowd of ebullient, laughing, arguing people. That's the pose of a film director, of course, but in this case it's also the pose of a man who's around people he's loved his whole life, and who is acutely aware that their time together is slipping away.

Best known as the director of the 2004 Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," one of the best-loved films of that decade, Gondry might be contemporary cinema's greatest nostalgic. For a guy who broke into the business making pop-music videos for the likes of Björk, Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers -- and whose low-tech, handmade special effects have influenced an entire generation of visual artists and filmmakers -- Gondry appears utterly unconcerned with fashion or currency. (In its own way, that's the secret of his success.)

Here are the projects he's worked on since "Eternal Sunshine" turned him into a big-name director: episodes of Dave Chapelle's "Block Party" and "The Flight of the Conchords," music videos for the Willowz, a segment for the arty anthology film "Tokyo!" and the features "The Science of Sleep" and "Be Kind Rewind," a pair of winsome, personal visions that underperformed at the box office.

Only now, six years on from his lone commercial success, is Gondry taking on a major studio film, and that too is an exercise in nostalgia: "The Green Hornet," a superhero flick that's been kicking around Hollywood for almost two decades, based on a crime-fighting character who debuted on radio in 1936. I think we can assume that Gondry's version, with Seth Rogen in the title role and co-writing the script, won't be overloaded with CGI effects -- if it has any at all -- and won't be in 3-D. (Gondry took over the project from Hong Kong action-comedy star Stephen Chow, who wanted to make a superhero spoof with Jack Black in the lead role. I, for one, am grateful.)

But we're not there yet. "The Green Hornet" will be out in time for Christmas, maybe. (Gondry says he's still editing.) So on the way to that so-called big superhero movie he made a documentary about his aunt, a woman in her mid-80s who doesn't hear or see too well. "The Thorn in the Heart" is almost certainly the least commercial work of Gondry's career, and in fact it may be difficult for American viewers to grasp the point at all. (More on that below.)

Suzette Gondry is a ramrod-upright retired schoolteacher in the Maritime Alps of southern France, with a family reputation as a tyrant and a bitter, unreconciled relationship with her adult gay son, Michel's cousin Jean-Yves. (The title, "L'epine dans le coeur" in French, stems from a remark Suzette makes about Jean-Yves.) During our conversation, Gondry told me that Suzette plays a villain in "The Green Hornet," and I honestly have no idea whether he was kidding.

Many families have faced far worse problems, of course, but perhaps the unremarkable nature of Suzette and Jean-Yves' conflict is partly the point. In patiently observing these people and spinning out their stories in elliptical, Gondrian fashion -- there are model-railroad sequences, a few little animations and a whimsical reenactment of a minor family crisis -- Gondry eventually makes Suzette and Jean-Yves come alive both as individuals and as symbols of the rapidly changing history of modern France, and even of the irreducible loneliness of the human condition.

"The Thorn in the Heart" is a quiet, unglamorous film that sneaks up on you slowly. I found it had a lovely, peculiar emotional resonance by the time it was over, but it's likely to appeal more to documentary buffs and obsessive Gondry fans than ordinary moviegoers. It offers an intimate look inside the family history that shaped an idiosyncratic filmmaker whose influence is only beginning to be felt. I reached Michel Gondry on the phone a few days ago at his production office in Los Angeles, to talk about educational policy, our older relatives and the fate of Algerian refugees in France.

Michel, this is a lovely film. But what gave you the idea of making a movie about your aunt?

It's not that anything gave me the idea. I felt that I had to do it. Because she's an amazing character and she lived a life that mirrored the story of France in the second half of the 20th century. She witnessed important parts of that history from a very removed place, in the mountains. Her first pupils included refugees from Cambodia, and then she taught the Harkis, who were refugees in the Algerian war.

Then she basically occupied a lot of dying villages. France, like most countries in the 20th century, became completely industrial. It started as largely agricultural and then became industrial, so all the small villages were abandoned, one after another. That's why she kept changing schools, because they were all closing all the time. To me, it's enough to justify doing a movie. But more than that, I felt it would be unfair not to do a movie about her.

Was she an important person in your own life, as a child?

Yes, I think so. She always encouraged me, as my parents did. But I sort of appreciated her sternness and strength. It was a good balance with my parents, who were very easygoing. It was an aspect of her that maybe I was the only one to really appreciate. A lot of people in the family were afraid of her and found her too strict. I didn't see it that way. I always appreciated her stories and what she could teach me, and the fact that she was a strong woman.

It certainly seems from the film like her former students were scared of her. Yet as adults, they remember her fondly.

You know, in my son's education, his favorite teachers were not necessarily the coolest, at all. They were, a lot of times, the most severe. It's hard to explain but, you know, you don't judge kindness by looseness. Kindness really comes underneath, it's deeper than just being cool. You can be strict and have a real kindness, and bring more to children.

It's not that I advocate strict education. I'm just pointing out that I'm a father, and as far as my son is concerned, we both appreciate strong teachers. I think this offers some insight into what it is to deal with life. A lot of people talk to me and say they have family members who are teachers, and this film speaks to them a lot. This film speaks, as well, to older people. Most of the time, the way we live in cities, we try to put the elderly in places where we don't have to deal with them, so that we miss what they can bring us. For them to see this lady who is very active in her mid-80s, and to see that as a filmmaker and a nephew, I listen to her and appreciate her -- it shows that there is a way to bring back harmony between the generations, to bring back a sense of usefulness to older people. This is very important.

You know, I eventually picked up on the historical significance of Suzette's life, but it took a while. If you don't know much about French history, which is going to be most American viewers, it might not be obvious at all.

Yeah, and for this reason on the DVD that we're putting out I'm going to do a short subject on the Harkis to explain what that's about. The Harkis were people from Algeria who fought alongside the French [during the 1954-62 Algerian war], who were the colonialists at the time. So when the French lost or gave up or went away, they had to take with them those Algerians who had fought with them. They would have been massacred if they had stayed in their own country. They didn't get a lot of help in France; they were put into camps, and one of them was very near a village where my auntie was living and teaching. Some of them had a great experience, like the guy you see in the film, but we also went to see his cousin, who hated France and had a very bitter experience. In the documentary on the DVD, we'll see both sides of this question.

There are just a few touches of the things your fans will expect in this movie. There's the model railroad you use to show the way Suzette moved around. There are a couple of brief animated sequences. And then there's the scene where you make some schoolchildren invisible. Tell me about that one.

Well, it's a little breathing room. You know, things are not always meant for the purpose they end up seeming to be for. Initially, the train was there because Jean-Yves used to have the same train when we were kids, and I wanted him to rebuild it. I wanted to give him a purpose, because I saw how bad he was with life, how depressed he was. I thought that would give him a great activity. So I financed him rebuilding the train -- it took him two years to build it back, and we worked together on it.

With the kids, I thought just to go there and shoot them with the camera -- it was a regular working day for them, and I wanted their memory of it to be something more special. So I decided to have them wear blue outfits that I would make disappear in post-production. Well, before the documentary was finished, I sent them a DVD of that scene we did together. I thought they would be thrilled by that. So the scene was created for them. But then, when I was done, I thought that this moment was like a recess at school, when you go outside for a little air, to run a bit before you come back for more teaching. It was the same for the movie.

And the little animations I did, it was all part of being there, because we did all the animation for "Science of Sleep" at Suzette's house. She was very excited about it, and very welcoming, to see us doing work in a place that has been dormant for decades. I did it really for that reason.

Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Jean-Yves, Suzette's son. I get the impression that one reason you made the film was to help Jean-Yves, to do something for him.

Yeah, that's totally correct. It was devastating to see him, and see how his mom was hard on him. I wanted to be able to like Suzette without any restraint, any bad thinking. I wanted to clarify every scene to make sure she was the person I liked. I knew that she was very hard on her son, but then, Jean-Yves is not easy to deal with, so I understood why she was so aggressive with him.

I think this film helped me to reach Jean-Yves, just like building his train. And maybe it helped people understand that it's OK to be homosexual. It's not like that in the countryside. It feels like an old story when you live in the city, like it's been dealt with 10 or 20 years ago. But in the countryside it's a very difficult problem. He presented his boyfriend to his mom and things have gotten much better between them. He's very grateful.

Beyond the question of the Algerian refugees whom Suzette taught, is there other stuff in the film you can explore further on the DVD?

Yeah, I think there are some things that need to be explained about why she wound up in a lot of different schools. There are also some very funny movies that she made when she rented a Super-8 camera in the '70s and she used it as a still camera, because she didn't know she had to keep pressing the button. We added some techno music to it, and it's like the most outrageous techno video. I mean, it's great!

It must be great to have a family with such a vast archive of Super-8 films to draw on. I barely have any photographs of my childhood, and you've got, like, a video library.

Yeah, we were a very visual family, if I may say so. It's always useful if you want to talk about the past. You can see it in the movie, when she talks to one of her former students and they talk about the Super-8 film they made of their school play of "Snow White." And the lady says, "Oh, I want to see that." And then we get to see it right away! It's pretty amazing.

Another wonderful scene that involves film is when you go back to a village where Suzette once taught, and all the older people in town come out into the woods to watch the same Jean Gabin film ("Remorques," or "Stormy Waters," from 1941) that she showed them years ago, projected on a giant outdoor screen. That's really very moving.

You have no idea how excited and happy they were. You would think those people don't care about movies, or watching movies in their village. But they were so excited, saying they have to do it every year. They were shedding tears. It was a great experience.

This film really demands patience, which isn't something film directors ask from their audience very much these days.

Well, if you are used to watching the super-movies all the time, then of course it's hard. If you like to hear your parents speak and tell their stories, then it's captivating.

It definitely made me think about the older people in my own family, my mother, my mother-in-law, my aunts and uncles, and how I should listen to them more than I do.

Yeah, exactly. If there is any message, that's the main one.

"The Thorn in the Heart" is now playing at the Village East Cinema in New York, with more cities and DVD release to follow. 

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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