SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 23, 2010
Director: Michel Gondry
In the opening scene of The Thorn in My Heart, Michel Gondry’s septuagenarian Aunt Suzette attempts to tell a story to a dinner table full of relatives about her late husband and an apparently hilarious misunderstanding having something to do with sauerkraut. She is laughing and crying so intensely that she can barely spit the words out. Luckily for us, Aunt Suzette is able to articulate other stories more rationally and clearly – The Thorn in My Heart is essentially about her stories, more specifically her history.
As a young woman, Aunt Suzette moved to the French countryside for a teaching position. She and her husband raised a son, Jean-Yves, who struggled with how to please his parents while hiding his homosexuality. Ever since his father died, Jean-Yves and his mother’s relationship has been strained at best. This is where Aunt Suzette’s penchant for the past and her keen memory haunt her. Her feelings about Jean-Yves (the “thorn” in her heart) never changed – nor did his feelings for her. The Gondry’s are a stubborn lot – they never forget. Adding to the tension, Jean-Yves – now in his 50s – never left home and he refused to continue her late husband’s business (Jean-Yves worked reluctantly at his father’s saw-mill for 10 years). Apparently one of Gondry’s goals in making The Thorn in My Heart is to better understand Aunt Suzette and cousin Jean-Yves’ conflict.
Aunt Suzette spent three long decades teaching in a multitude of schools across rural France. (She even taught the children of Algerian refugees in the wake of the war of independence.) Gondry takes us and Aunt Suzette around the French countryside to rediscover her old schoolhouses – most of which have been converted to homes or reduced to rubble. We meet some of her former students and co-workers. We are also privy to intimate clips of Gondry family home movies – most of which were shot by Jean-Yves.
The beloved matriarch of the Gondry clan, Aunt Suzette is incredibly charming and admirable but she is far from perfect (during a one-on-one interview session she confesses that she kept her husband’s death from her children until she felt as though they were ready for the bad news). Gondry remains reverently respectful of his family’s history despite the warts and idiosyncrasies; it is obvious that Gondry not only loves his family but loves the cinematic (more specifically documentary) art form as well. Though he, for the most part, avoids his ragtag bag of clever camera tricks and unyielding penchant for surrealism; Gondry never completely sheds his whimsical stylings: Jean-Yves’ miniature toy trains are used to illustrate each change of location; there is a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of a mundane family crisis (“The Drying Rack Tragedy”); there is mockumentary-styled “behind the scenes” footage immediately prior to an interview; and my personal favorite scene – Gondry provides a class of elementary school kids with “invisibility costumes” (a clever chroma-key exercise scored perfectly to a Charlotte Gainsbourg tune).
The Thorn in My Heart is an incredibly intimate and personal film; if it were not such a beautiful and well-crafted documentary, I would assume that it was just another Gondry home movie. I still much prefer Gondry’s fictional work (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep), but The Thorn in My Heart is one of the best family documentaries that I have ever seen.
Next up for Michel Gondry…The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen. Seems like a strange fit for Gondry, but I didn’t expect him to successfully pull off a documentary about his family either…so maybe he’ll pull another rabbit out of his hat.