SXSW 2010 Review: THE THORN IN THE HEART
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Suzette Gondry, Jean-Yves Gondry
Upon watching the first scene in Michel Gondry's family documentary THE THORN IN THE HEART unfold, I started to get a sinking feeling and sneaking suspicion that this film might wind up being an exercise in tedium-- and in French no less. In the scene, the subject of the film, Michel's Aunt Suzette laughs uncontrollably trying to get through a story she finds hilarious but those watching will most likely find it nonsensical. In fact, even her family who sit around her at the dinner table seem to have trouble getting through it.
It's a strange scene to open the film with but Gondry wants to show the other side of Suzette who is known as being the strict, unfeeling one in the family after enduring a career teaching children in the remote French countryside during the '50s, '60s and '70s. Gondry succeeds at doing this by exploring her relationship with her eccentric son Jean-Yves, who suffered a nervous breakdown after his father passed away and the two have been estranged ever since. Gondry forces the action to finally break through with his Aunt and exposes her pain in the process. Fans of Gondry's work will probably find that the film reveals more about him than his Auntie, however.
The film is pieced together with a vast amount of Super 8 footage taken by his family over the last few decades and Gondry spent over five years to complete it. This mostly has to do with the fact that it took a lot of prying to get his subject to open up as Gondry first told his Aunt that the documentary would only center around her professional life as a teacher and not the relationship with her son.
We do journey out to some of the remote schools in France that Suzette was sent to and taught at over the years but the emotional core of the film is not found within the moments Suzette visits an old schoolhouse or reunites with past students. It's in the uncomfortable moments between Suzette and her son and in the scenes where Gondry's light prodding finally give way to some heartfelt moments where Suzette admits her frustrations with Jean-Yves and the undertone of sadness that it uncovers. Even though these are the most important moments in the film, it's also where Gondry breaks the rules a bit.
This is not a real documentary. Not really. In a documentary, the first rule is not to interfere with your subjects and simply capture the events as they happen. Gondry doesn't do that here. He pushes the drama with Suzette and he has every right to-- it's his family. However, it also shows that Gondry was not a documentarian first, he was a member of this family first and foremost. The reason he made this film was to investigate some of the ugly truths within his family, to show that family the woman behind the armor with Suzette and to help her through some of the pain she has been hiding. The film is made with the best of intentions but it would not be a film worth making if Gondry had not captured those cathartic moments so that his family could see them and be the better for it.
It's an important film for Gondry to make but I question whether or not it's an important movie to see. Maybe it will inspire other families to reconcile their differences and have a much needed pow-wow. Whether you film that reconciliation is entirely up to you. Maybe it will offer insight into the man and how he operates as a filmmaker.
The animation done in THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP was actually all filmed right in Suzette's house and there are a few flurries of stop-motion and traditional animation buried in the film as well. An old train set belonging to Jean-Yves is featured heavily in a number of sequences and Gondry's child-like depictions of nature are most definitely on display here. For fans of Michel Gondry films, I would recommend seeing this but for the general masses I would probably just encourage you to all go and call your Mom and tell her how much you love her.
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