For anyone who has seen a Michel Gondry movie and wondered about the brain that could have created such a thing (and really, that's just about anyone who has seen a Michel Gondry movie), "The Thorn in the Heart" is an interesting window into the director.
"The Thorn in the Heart" ("L'Epine dans le Coeur") is his intimate portrait of the family matriarch, his aunt Suzette Gondry. Through casual interviews and old home movies, Gondry traces Suzette's life as an elementary school teacher in rural France and as the mother of her now adult son, Jean-Yves, with whom she has a strained relationship.
This is not the stuff of mass appeal.
Suzette is a white-haired sprite of a woman. She's nimble, inquisitive, quick to laugh, forever youthful and occasionally ruthless. It's easy to see many of those traits in her famous nephew, the inventive filmmaker behind "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Science of Sleep," as well as many of the most memorable music videos of the last two decades.
There are sporadic hints at Gondry's magical, organic technique: occasional bits of animation and one scene (the finest of the film) where he gives the young students at one of Suzette's former schools "invisible costumes" that hide the children's bodies on camera as they run about on the playground.
‘Why are you filming me?’
But the general style of "The Thorn in the Heart" is a verite documentary where even the making of it is in the frame: Suzette addresses a crew member holding the boom microphone; at the end, the family gathers to watch parts of the movie.
They may be the film's only real audience.
"The Thorn in the Heart," though, is, well, a thornier thing. There isn't much revelation and it's raison detre remains obscure.
Gondry's wonderful "Eternal Sunshine" and his excellent music doc "Block Party" are now several years old. Since then, his films ("Science of Sleep," "Be Kind Rewind") have been uneven; Gondry seems to have had difficulty finding the right equilibrium between personal projects and studio fare, a shame considering his considerable talent.
Most interesting in "The Thorn of the Heart" is its depiction of a family where moviemaking is enmeshed in daily life. Movies are an avenue of introspection and discovery; Super 8 is as much a part of the diet as carrots.
Still, when a young relative of Gondry's asks him, "Why are you filming me?" one can't help but think, "Good question."