As evidenced by some of the effusively congratulatory responses in a post-screening q&a I attended at the South by Southwest Film Festival for The Thorn in the Heart, some audience members may want to watch other people's home movies, but I don't. Although it features some of the same artsy handmade flourishes as his previous films, Michel Gondry's new documentary is essentially a portrait of his extended family, in particular his aunt Suzette, presented via a combination of staged (albeit acknowledged) recollections, on-the-fly interviews, and yes, family-shot films. And while I don't begrudge the esteemed director pursuing a subject slightly closer to home as an alternative to or respite from his higher-profile fiction features, I reserve the right to not want to watch it myself, even if others may successfully argue that it's a revealing look at the people who helped Gondry become the artist he is today.
Initially intended to be an affectionate chronicle of Gondry's aunt Suzette during her days as a schoolteacher, the film slowly takes on larger proportions when the director reveals that Suzette and her son Jean-Yves have endured a strained relationship for decades. Poring over the details of a family history whose crux seems to be the death of Suzette's husband and Jean-Yves' father, Gondry unveils decades of pained, difficult feelings on all sides. But as his tales of Suzette's schoolhouse days expand with their own complexity, they ultimately comment upon the troubled mother-son connection that has lingered, tenuous and unaddressed, for many years, even as Gondry gently nurtures the two of them towards an equally tender and fragile reconciliation.
Even for Francophiles, it doesn't help that the film is entirely in French and focuses on lives and lifestyles that are, well, foreign to Americans; the first half of the film features a long string of interviews in which Suzette reconnects with fellow teachers and former students, and all of them recalls details about her approach and her lesson plans that for lack of a better word seem academic at best. But even without Gondry's q&a confession that he changed directions halfway through, it's obvious that the original concept - a travelogue portrait of Suzette as a schoolteacher – is not really a movie as much as it is a collection of anecdotes and memories, both for Suzette and for Gondry.
It's abundantly clear that the director wanted to pay tribute to his family matriarch, and does so nobly and affectionately; but that didn't make for a particularly good film, which is presumably why he shifted focus – to its eventually benefit – to that friction between Suzette and Jean-Yves.
Again, however, there are several occasions in which Gondry's inventiveness enhances the reality of his subject, as when he offers a group of schoolchildren the opportunity to be "invisible" via green screen technology and sets the whole sequence to Charlotte Gainsbourg's wonderful, wistful song "Little Monsters." But the rest of the time it feels as if the viewer is invading intimate moments of Gondry family history - not in the sense that we're privy to a private, unseen world, but that we should excuse ourselves while the people on screen work out their problems. In which case, we may indeed feel as if we're sharing in the healing of their family, but I'm not sure that healing inspires pay-it-forward-style insights, except perhaps in the observation that casual cruelties can halve deep, long-term ramifications, and I'd argue audiences don't need an entire film in order to learn that lesson.
But maybe there are people desperate to be taught, and maybe this is the film to provide that particular kind of enlightenment. As a fan of Gondry's films – pretty much all of his other ones – I personally feel like I've learned more from his narrative work than his documentaries, not the least of which because he always seems to integrate those human truths into his fictional stories, and often to greater effect. Regardless, the worst I can say about The Thorn in the Heart is that it may be a film that appeals or "is for" other viewers, and it's obviously one for the filmmaker - but it's not a film for me. So see it if you seem like you need to, or skip it if all you're interested in is his fiction stuff; but it's a small film – truly, a "home movie" – which is why unlike the rest of Gondry's, work it requires no greater context than your own connection to it to know whether The Thorn in the Heart will ultimately leave a lasting mark.