Music video artist-turned-auteur Michel Gondry, the French fabulist director behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind Rewind,” has reinvented his organic style yet again by ditching the wild visuals and iconic performers he’s typically associated with for the deeply intimate vérité doc “The Thorn in the Heart” (or for those don’t need the subtitles, “L’Épine dans le Coeur”).
Gondry modestly turns the camera on his own clan, specifically focusing on his then-septuagenarian aunt and family matriarch Suzette. A former schoolteacher with an easy laugh and sometimes brutal candor, Suzette allows her renowned nephew to investigate the knotty relationship between her and Jean-Yves, the adult son she sometimes victimizes. I chatted with Gondry about his earliest memories of his aunt, sharing his sex life with the elderly, and his other film opening later this year, “The Green Hornet.”
Your aunt is obviously precious to you, so what did you want to share about her with us?
In general, we watch movies about people who are extraordinary or already famous for something. Some people could complain that one should not do a movie about real people. I think there’s a lack of that in entertainment, seeing normal lives… well, nobody is normal. Everybody’s different. I always find it more challenging, but interesting, to find something special in the normal things. I watch this type of documentary all the time. I find them more entertaining than fiction.
So again, why specifically her?
Well, she’s 84 and has most of her life behind her. Her life has been difficult, and in some regard, it reflects an important part of the French history of the second half of the 20th century. It’s important to record her story. Maybe it’s not so important to share it, but once it’s recorded, it would be bad not to share it. She’s been a teacher in places that are dying and closing down because of people leaving the countryside to go to the city. She taught children of different ages in very small schools.
Shooting happened over the course of five years, and it took a turn when we started to interview her son about his mother as a teacher. It’s where the real drama came from. To me, it becomes engaging, sad and deep. Of course it’s my family, but if it was not, I think I would be willing to watch it unfold.
What is your earliest memory of Suzette?
Walking with her in nature. I remember I was always asking her, “What’s this?” She’d say, “This flower is called the primavera. It can poison the horses, so if you ride a horse, you have to make sure he’s not going to eat these.” What’s this rock? “This is granite, made when the ocean was covering this part of the planet. It’s caused by sentiment of all the dead crustaceans.” What’s this, Suzette? It was a big lizard, and she’d say, “I don’t know, let’s go away!” We were both scared of this lizard, looking like a big chameleon.
What is the most potent wisdom she’s ever imparted upon you?
Oh, lots of things. She has a way of saying things that are very profound, and in a way that’s simple, not polluted by trended psychoanalysis. I could read you her last e-mail, for instance. She writes on paper and then her son copies it later because she can’t see very well, so she can write, but can’t read. I’m going to read you the e-mail, hold on…
See, it didn’t work out with my previous girlfriend, so I shared a theory with her. I had been trying to find a girlfriend who looks like my mother, but I was mistaken. I should find a girlfriend who looks like my auntie. She said, “Yes, you need a schoolteacher who will serve you with all her generosity and a lot of imagination [so you’ll] be captivated by her. I told you love is an enterprise that demands time and present attention, especially when the sex bank gets eroded.” It’s weird, she never went so far into talking about sex, but since we talk so much [in the film] about her son being a homosexual, and she had to confess how it was difficult for her, she feels more in a position to talk about my sex problem. It’s very interesting to speak about your sex life with a woman who is 84 years old.
Was it strange to document this relationship with her son since he’s also your cousin? Did you ever feel like you were intruding with the camera?
Well, the camera is sort of a shield to intrude. You become a little bit removed from reality because of the presence of the camera, because of the technicality of it. I didn’t want to hurt them too much, but the story was leading me to this problem. Tthe first time [we shot them], we saw we couldn’t keep them in the same frame, Jean-Yves [and Suzette]. The D.P. asked to walk back because they were getting away from each other. It was clear that they had a lot of passivity in their relationship that had to be dealt with.