STUDIO: Oscilloscope
MSRP: $29.99
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes
•  A Brief History of the Harkis
•  Techno Suzette
•  Calendars Doodled
•  Stop motion animation by Gondry collaborator Valerie Pirson
•  Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “Little Monsters”
•  Post-screening Q&A with Gondry at SXSW premiere
•  In Conversation – a special event with Michel Gondry at SXSW Film Festival

The Pitch

Michel Gondry puts together a home movie about his aunt, who was a schoolteacher in France for decades.  It’ll be way more Eternal Sunshine than Be Kind.  Promise.

The Humans

Starring: Suzette Gondry, Jean-Yves Gondry, Michel Gondry
Directed by Michel Gondry.

The Nutshell

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) makes his most personal film to date in this documentary chronicling the life of his aunt, Suzette Gondry, who was a schoolteacher in France for decades before retiring.  Michel explores the meaning of family, education, and film as he turns the cameras toward himself and his own kin, doing it the way only he can do: with unique style and depth.

Hank new that getting a flower on his arm that said “My Mom” was a bit cliche, but he needed some street cred and knew of no other way.

The Lowdown

The Thorn in the Heart is a home movie.  But since this a home movie by Michel Gondry, it’s unlike any home movie you’ve ever made, or ever seen before.  Starting off with the Gondry family sitting around a modest dinner table at the home of Suzette Gondry – Michel’s aunt – we feel at first like outsiders – as we should considering we’re eavesdropping on this group of people who are all very close while we don’t know them at all.  But as Suzette laughs so hard she can barely recant her story about sauerkraut that ends up being only really funny to her, we, along with her fellow family members can’t help but chuckle ourselves at how hilarious she finds this memory and how difficult she’s finding it to tell.  By the end of the scene, we’re no longer spying on this family; we’re invited to stay.  He shoots much of the film with hand-held cameras of varying quality; but, also includes Super 8 footage from the family camera years ago along with new, high-res material.  Together it feels like a home video compilation and it works.  It works really well.

The Thorn in the Heart is about education.  Suzette is the driving force of this movie, with his shock of white hair, constant smiles, and depth of emotion behind her eyes that twinkle as she recants her life as a teacher, starting off at a tiny one-room school where she had to haul water in from the nearby river in rural France to another where she projected films on the wall for her students to the dismay of the parents.  She’s instantly likeable, coming across like a grandmother more than an aunt (although, I suppose that’s just an age thing to me).  Even though I couldn’t understand a word coming out of her mouth (she speaks only French in the film), I became attached to her voice, how it fluctuated between nostalgia, happiness, glee, frustration, anger, and mourning throughout as she told stories about her life as a teacher, life as a mother, and life as a wife.  She was dedicated to all duties, and you can tell that she loved being a teacher.  It was her innate gift and she did it for years and years, working at different schools as the family moved from the sticks into a more populated village.  Her son, Jean-Yves (Michel’s cousin), had Suzette for both a mother and a teacher for most of his life and The Thorn in the Heart explores that dichotomy and what affect it had on him growing up.  (Having had a mother as a teacher myself — although, she was only a substitute, but still — I know that it brings its share of interesting moments, that’s for sure.)

Jane Lynch couldn’t believe her luck that she was still alive to be a part of Glee 2040: The New Class.

The Thorn in the Heart is about family.  Jean-Yves still lives at home with his mom.  He worked with his dad, Jean-Guy, in the mill for a number of years and dreamt of going off to catering school only to realize that he didn’t have the drive to succeed in school that was necessary to achieve that goal.  His relationship with his mother is a source of conflict in the movie, their connection strained in many ways by the death of Jean-Guy.  Actually, no: their relationship already had its communication issues that only were exacerbated as the patriarch fell ill and died years earlier.  But to this day, Jean-Yves still harbors resentment toward Suzette for having not told him of his father’s passing until days later, in part because he refused to check in on his condition because he couldn’t handle it.  Seeing how both of them deal with this trauma is just one minute slice of life that Gondry handles with total transparency — there’s no sense of manipulation or construction of drama for the sake of the movie.  It’s just real people with real emotions dealing with real life in real time.  It’s something to which many of us can relate, regardless of whether or not we’ve dealt with the exact same scenario, because the intricacies of mother-child relationships transcend time and space to affect us all.  And to be honest, I was surprised at how willing Suzette and Jean-Yves were willing to bare their souls on camera.  It shows just how solid of a bond they all have with Michel to let him enter their lives and dig up some seriously sensitive subject matter.  And you’d expect that to be the case since family is such an important aspect of the movie.

Betty had no idea what hit her and Larry couldn’t contain his happiness when his psychically-induced heart attack move finally worked!

The Thorn in the Heart is about filmmaking.  Gondry brings a very unique sensibility to all of his films and this one is no different — animated sequences pop in from time to time to accent the story; breaking the fourth wall; the use of multiple film stocks and cameras.  While his movies don’t always gel for me, his creativity oozes off the screen making it impossible to deny the talent he has.  Moments in this movie lag and I found myself wondering just why this story was important to anyone other than the Gondry family.  But then, just when my attention threatened to drift, Gondry pulled me back in.  In one ridiculously charming scene, Gondry goes to a current school in a larger village where he gives the students a bunch of questions to ask Suzette.  And to treat them for their participation, he has them put on invisible clothes (green shirts and pants that he then keyed out) and let them play dodgeball.  It ended up being such a great cinematic moment that also spoke so much about filmmaking and teaching at the same time.  It wasn’t just some technological stunt; thematically and story-wise, it was the scene where it all came together for me. 

The Thorn in the Heart is home movie about all three.  It’s about film as family, film as educator, and film as an art form.  Suzette mentioned that she loved teaching first grade the most because by the end of the year, you’ve watched kids learn to read.  She loved being able to witness that progress, to see people seeing a new world opening up in front of their eyes.  Michel Gondry’s film argues that film can do that same kind of enlightening for the viewer.  I’d have to say I agree with him.

Bill and Ralph knew she was a faker when she just stood there staring disapprovingly while they tore her wheelchair apart.

The Package

Talk about loaded with special features. Delving into these will take some time and will reward the serious Gondry fan.  Techno Suzette ended up being a bit long but was a cool extension of his themes of education and film; and, Invisible Monsters set the kids wearing invisible clothes to new music and showed us more of their fun on the playground — which was just such a great moment in the movie. 

The movie uses high quality images as well as very low-quality, almost VHS-level, footage and together it all works amazingly.  It’s a fantastic film to watch visually due to the changes in media as well as the gorgeous French countryside that it captures.

8 out of 10

Looks like someone had way too much fun with the Photoshop Eraser tool.