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Michel Gondry - Interview
There is absolutely no question that if I were to make a Top 10 list of films for the decade that just past Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind would, without question, has a place in the top slot. A movie that takes the tired and broken trope of what happens when boy meets girl and it goes horribly awry, the movie makes visual the pain and discordance you feel when despondency is your only emotion. Michel has a way of making emotions feel like you could reach out and caress them and his latest film, The Thorn in the Heart, is no different.
It’s a documentary that follows Suzette Gondry, Michele’s aunt, as we see how this matriarch was a vanguard in her time, a teacher who had progressive thoughts on education, and how as a mother she struggled to find peace with her son who just seemed lost after the death of his father many decades ago. The fact that his cousin would years later leave his wife in order to live the live of a gay man, the way he always should have, is pedestrian compared to the caustic relationship he had with his mother, sweet aunt Suzette.
The movie, shot over the course of many years, is a snapshot of one family’s troubles and what it took for them to find some peace and a little bit of solace in the commonality of life. There’s nothing earth shattering about the movie, you expect there to be some kind of deep secret to be let out into the open, and it’s a function, I believe, of the form as of late that seems to implicitly state that a documentary like this has to have a great reveal. It does not. Its reveal is that even in the depths of rural France there aren’t a lot of things that separate these people with people you know across the street. We all have drama of some kind in our lives, the documentary shows, but it’s finding the threads that connect us and weaving them all together to show a portrait of humanity we all can recognize is really this movie’s strength.
Michel Gondry spoke with me this week about the film, which is slated to open today, April 2nd, in New York and shortly after that in Wisconsin and next month in Los Angeles. Check the film’s website for specific locations and times.
MICHEL GONDRY: Hi Christopher. How are you doing?
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I’m good thank you. How are you?
GONDRY: I’m good, thanks.
CS: I watched your film last night and I have to tell you it’s one of the more moving documentaries I’ve seen this year.
GONDRY: Oh, thank you. Please share your views with the world.
CS: I absolutely am. I think, and that was the first question I wanted to lead off with, was that the film feels very personal…
CS: Was there any hesitation on your part in telling the story which felt so private?
GONDRY: I initially had hesitation to put it out but I wanted to tell my own story because Suzette mirrored French history in the schools and I thought that deserved to be shot. Now, when it became more personal I felt maybe it was too personal to show but I think it was more interesting this way because we had the real drama that we explored even though there was some sadness in it. There was a sort of good conclusion and something healthy in doing that.
I think people who have seen it enjoyed it because they could find themselves in it.
CS: I think the movie paints her out to be very tough, very stern, but when I think about the teachers I had, at least the ones that really affected me, those are the ones I remember fondly. Suzette has old students who absolutely remember her, and remember the way she ran a classroom. But I think that toughness – that was an important part in order for her to keep going.
GONDRY: I think her toughness is one of the things that I liked. When you are a child, to feel the strength of a parent is very reassuring and I think my parents were lacking that. They gave us lots of great things – they were great parents – but the strength Suzette had was something I was craving. Because I find my mother to be very weak and I didn’t want to be like that. And I know some people in my family didn’t really like her because she has this sternness about her but I liked her for that. The teachers I liked when I was young was a teacher that was strong but had a sense of humor. And it’s the same with my son. The teacher that he like the best are not the weakest, it was the stronger ones.
CS: That’s interesting. Your son – you literally bring your family into the film as well – did you have to struggle with that as a parent of trying to find that balance of where to be tough or try not to be too loosey-goosey or too soft with your kids?
GONDRY: Yeah, well, we can talk a long time abut that.
I think it’s very hard. You have one child – I think what’s difficult is to find where to give up and where not to give up in your strength. Many parents set the bar too high when you raise a child – let’s say no TV. Too hard to achieve. You say, “No TV…No TV…No TV” and then after a lot of nagging you say, “OK, TV.” All the thought you put into “No TV” is collapsing. I think one of the keys ways is to pick you battles and stick to them. It’s a problem to be too loose and it’s hard to teach and could be just propaganda. But I found my son was watching too much TV when he was in France and it was all about video games and I recommend that to all the parents just not have the video games at all.
When it’s there you always have to fight to stop it and it’s so much work. You say “OK, only a half an hour a day” but it’s going to be tough. You are going to spend all your energy fighting with a little person. So, I thought of that and I know that Suzette was way too strict with her son. It’s very difficult to know what indication – it’s just who people are. It’s a combination. I don’t know what is the denominator.
CS: And that strikes to a point I was going to ask, Suzette at times seems hesitant to answer your questions that become too personal but you keep prodding her and keep poking her and you stay persistent with it. Did you feel you knew there was something there and you had to get it out of her?
GONDRY: Oh yeah. I just wanted it on camera because I thought that was the real subject of the film. It became clear it was about her son and her. It was very difficult to talk about it. It’s a very difficult problem. Jean-Yves has a daughter because initially he was married and he didn’t come out until he was my age and his daughter was ashamed. It’s a difficult problem.
CS: By the end of the film I’m almost, I don’t want to say confused about how Jean-Yves feels but do you think that because he’s come out he’s gained a little bit more perspective, a little bit more healing because of it?
GONDRY: Yeah. He just sent me an email. May I read something I received from him this morning?
GONDRY: He says in his email:
My dear Michel,
I transfer from French…You helped me a lot since 2004 and thanks to you I pull though my problem. I am still unemployed but hope to find work…Moreover, I find happiness with Mark…Thank you infinitely and I am very happy for everything you have done for me and I can’t find the words to show my gratefulness towards you. I hope one day I hope I can live with Mark…His boyfriend.
CS: That’s sweet.
GONDRY: It’s very sweet. He really made me cry when I got it.
CS: Michel, I just have one last question for you. I know my time is short. Suzette in the film, she says she doesn’t fear death anymore. She just seems more concerned with the things that came before this. I’m curious to know whether you as a person have perspective on where you’ve been and not so concerned with where you’re headed.
GONDRY: I’m a very anxious person.
I think it’s very scary to get old because you know you’ll be dying soon. My hope is that when it’s my time I can figure it out. At the end of my life I hope to figure it out. But I have a great fear and I would be lying to not admit it.
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