Franco-Hollywoodien director Michel Gondry’s latest, L’Épine dans le Coeur, turns the camera en his own famille in this heartfelt documentary.
The Thorn in the Heart
Keeping it in the Family by Laura Bennett
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Best known for the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the decidedly off-the-wall Be Kind Rewind, and a never-ending list of videos and ads for the biggest names in music and brands, Michel Gondry’s L’Épine dans le Coeur is a touching and highly personal film that gets straight to the heart of the complicated relationships of his extended family.
Initially suggested by Paul, his teenage son and a graphic artist, Gondry’s film focuses on the life of the formidable family matriarch, retired teacher Suzette. Put at her ease in front of the camera by her nephew, Suzette dominates the screen time. For the first part of the film, her reminiscences are based around her working life as she paints a vivid picture of the rural French education system through the decades.
Clearly a dedicated and passionate pedagogue Suzette recounts many episodes in picturesque detail. Her stories fill the screen, from being one of the first teachers to champion the need for her pupils to learn to swim, to insisting that the daughters of a recently re-settled group of Algerian harki immigrants attend her school along with their brothers. At the end of the film, she is reunited with some all-grown-up former pupils whose respect and gratitude to her are tangible.
Filmed over the course of five years, Gondry gently steers Suzette’s memories around to those of her late husband and her relationship with their son Jean-Yves. More awkward on screen than his mother, Jean-Yves is a complex character, somewhat estranged from her. Having been bullied by his classmates as a child due to his mother’s job, and later struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, Jean-Yves seems uncomfortable in his own skin. Never quite managing to connect with him, his mother refers to him as the thorn in her heart.
Opening with the Gondry family à table, food and the kitchen prove a recurring theme. Suzette’s most painful revelations come when she is in the heart of every French home, la cuisine. Here she recalls her husband’s death and her decision to refrain from telling her children for several days, exacerbating her rift with Jean-Yves and ultimately, he claims, leading to his breakdown. L’Épine dans le Coeur is at its most expressive and emotional as Gondry cuts between present day one-on-one interviews and grainy Super 8 footage, whether it be of faded, fondly remembered family holidays or Suzette’s pupils at the pool. Each generation of the family has a role to play in this archive treasure-trove that brings even sadly departed family members back to life.
A portrait of provincial French life is woven deftly through Suzette’s interviews. Revisiting locations in her past she tracks down a number of former friends and colleagues, these meetings becoming catalysts for some of her most cherished memories. Delighted to be on screen, these figures are also put at their ease by the director. Returning to one of Suzette’s former schools the current pupils are given the chance to dance around in post-production invisibility costumes, sheer delight clear to see on the children’s faces. Gondry uses subtle stop-go animation and model trains travelling around a quaint and ordered world to punctuate Suzette’s memories of different locations. The real-life landscape backdrop is provided by the untamed, timeless beauty of the mountainous Cévennes region of southern France.
Countering accusations that centring a documentary film around the life of an ordinary person is not entertainment, Gondry maintains that this is exactly what makes his film worthwhile, “filming people for who they are, regardless of their achievement, is very interesting”. By providing an understanding of the struggle within every family, he hopes the audience will identify with this and perhaps realise that their own family issues are not unusual. Tempered but intriguing, the slow pace of L’Épine dans le Coeur is a definite departure from Gondry’s previous films and may not be for some of his ardent fans. However, its undeniable warmth and value show through, blood, after all, is thicker than water.
L’Épine dans le Coeur will be released in the UK on December 10th 2011