Mike Reviews Michel Gondry's New Documentary THE THORN IN THE HEART

rating: 2.5

Serial arthouse kook Michel Gondry makes a rare foray into the world of documentary filmmaking. But he has not done so for just any subject, in fact the only stories that have so far been capable of shifting the imaginative Frenchman from his fantastical world of fiction sit incredibly close to his life. In this instance, it is the story of his Aunt, Suzette Gondry, and her son/his cousin Jean-Yves. Beginning with a dinner at which the extended family are held rapt by an amusing anecdote from the irrepressible matriarch, The Thorn In the Heart sets up a narrative built around Suzette's own storytelling capabilities. As the film meanders through the recesses of her memory, she describes events from her past, takes us to places of personal significance, including the schools in which she taught and the villages in which she worked, all the while followed by her nephew Michel and his camera. The close, personal, approach to documentary filmmaking makes for some very candid scenes and as a result the film has a welcome feel of honesty and integrity. Because he is so close to his subjects, Gondry manages to elicit some moving moments of candor that others may not have gotten close to. He finds ways of getting his family members to talk openly about tricky subjects, and most impressive among these techniques is perhaps one of the simplest: an interview with Jean-Yves in which he talks about his relationship with his mother as he strolls slowly up a hill. The walking somehow seems to open him up, and frees his thinking in a way that many more controlled interviews could never have done. Ironically, the film's greatest strength is also its biggest weakness. While Suzette's anecdotes seem genuinely heartfelt, and there are clearly a few moments of real emotional turmoil, it is difficult to glean greater significance to these events beyond their personal, local implications. As a meditation on family, and the microelements of relationships that make us who we are, it does offer some neat insights but they rarely expand into anything resembling a truly engaging narrative or impressive personal revelations. Even more frustratingly, Michel Gondry occasionally indulges in flights of fancy that make the proceedings seem too diffuse. It's a little bit like he regresses into a child who can't repress his own playful curiosity, or worse, like he's an adult filmmaker who loses sight of the story he is telling as he sidesteps into self-indulgent tangents. Whether it's quaint games with the younger family members, playing with children in one of the schools or relaying 'amusing' tales of household mishaps, these interludes detract from the emotional gravitas, which the film could have reached as an intimate portrait of a mother/son relationship, and so drastically reduce the value of the film as a whole. It's a problem displayed by Gondry already in Be Kind Rewind, which lurched too easily into nostalgic silliness when it should have had a clearer plot and more interesting message at its heart. Still, for a private glimpse into the family life of a well-known director, or for anyone at all, this is an interesting vignette. Even if nostalgia and flights of fancy cause Gondry to lose focus, and prevent this film from being everything it could be. Thorn in the Heart is on limited U.K. release from tomorrow.
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Michael J Edwards hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.