Director Michel Gondry leans heavily on nostalgia, often serving up visuals from a distinctly childlike perspective. From his early music videos and short films to feature-length efforts like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, he regularly made use of inventive (and often in-camera) special effects to create distorted, dreamlike environments, carefully hiding his stories between layers of illusion. More recently, though, Gondry's work has relied less on "tricks": Dave Chappelle's Block Party played it straight and the underrated Be Kind, Rewind reveled in a love for no-budget moviemaking, even closing with a touching reminder of how the simple act of making something together can unite a group of people. It's easy to see that a filmmaker like Gondry wouldn't feel at home directing a polished Hollywood blockbuster: he often speaks directly from the heart, for better or for worse.
Gondry's latest film is The Thorn In The Heart, which arrived last year almost completely under the radar. Essentially, it's a biography of Michel's aunt Suzette, a former schoolteacher from rural France, and the many lives she's touched during the last several decades. Her son is Jean-Yves, a somewhat reserved man who appeared to fumble through childhood---and portions of adulthood, for that matter---under her thumb. Suzette is a bold, passionate woman. Jean-Yves is a man who, like Michel, never completely grew up. The relationship between this mother and son, however, is laced with disappointment, resentfulness and regret. In spite of their uncomfortable interactions, The Thorn In The Heart praises Suzette Gondry and her accomplishments...but as we're reminded along the way, this is anything but a glossy, dishonest tribute.
Unfortunately, most of the good news ends there. The Thorn In The Heart is an extremely tough nut to crack, as the viewer is constantly placed at a distance from Gondry's family: during both my first and second viewings, I never felt like I had any business "being there". Whether due to differences in culture, humor or family dynamics, Suzette rarely comes across as a likeable or engrossing figure, even though her accomplishments are never understated. It's obvious that we're not getting the whole picture here, of course: decades of family history have been condensed into less than 90 minutes, so I'd imagine that layers of subtle behavior will be lost on anyone whose last name isn't Gondry. To the film's credit, several of the more emotionally-driven bits of history (most notably, the untimely death of Suzette's husband) manage to balance poignancy and drama, but these moments are few and far between.
With that said, a few interesting little touches should please fans of Gondry's back catalogue, even if some feel a little forced. The Thorn In The Heart makes no attempts to be a polished production: we see the camera crew setting up shots and we often hear Gondry giving direction before scenes officially "begin". One of the most memorable scenes, at least from a visual perspective, shows a number of young students playing in "invisible costumes", thanks to the magic of green-screen technology. Though the latter seems especially tacked-on, moments like these manage to convey the rough-around-the-edges appeal of Gondry's earlier works. For lack of a better summary, The Thorn In The Heart feels more accessible from a technical perspective than as an actual story.
For all its flaws---and lack of replay value, to be completely honest---The Thorn In The Heart isn't without merit. It's simply a project that started small and was probably more effective in its original circle; as if the film at the end of Be Kind, Rewind actually got a theatrical release. Even so, it arrives on DVD courtesy of the reliable Oscilloscope Laboratories---and if nothing else, this one-disc release pairs a decent technical presentation with a small assortment of quality extras, preserving the spirit of the main feature in the process. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, The Thorn In The Heart looks a little rough around the edges...but in most cases, it's mostly due to the source material. Framing varies wildly at times: the picture is almost always window-boxed at roughly 1.66:1, plenty of old Super 8 footage is thrown in and other sequences jump to a 2.35:1 format. Dirt and debris can be spotted on occasion, as well as intermittent periods of softness and uneven black levels. With that said, many of these problems can be forgiven: Gondry's film is an intensely personal affair and doesn't necessarily seem concerned with pristine visuals.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in 2.0 Stereo) is low-key but still has its moments. Both tracks are presented in the original French with optional English subtitles (for translation purposes only, although very little English is spoken) and the clarity is fine for a film of this type. Separation is strong and rear channels are primarily used for music cues, never fighting for attention with the film's relaxed score.
A series of shorter, somewhat film-centric bonus features is up next. Leading things off is "Calendars Doodled" (1:27), a self-playing visual gallery of drawings by some of the students featured briefly in the film. Also here is "Techno Suzette" (5:56), a music video comprised of Super 8 footage mistakenly shot by our heroine, who initially thought she was wielding a regular point-and-shoot camera. Next up are a few Animations by Valerie Pirson (1:51, below right), whose unique work is glimpsed throughout the main feature. Roughly half a dozen short clips are included; some were never used and appear here for the first time. We're also treated to a Music Video for Charlotte Gainsbourg's interpretation of "Little Monsters" (2:03), which recycles footage from the students' "Invisible Costumes" sequence.
Two clips of SXSW Film Festival Footage are up next, and both feature Michel Gondry prominently. Included here are a Post Screening Q&A (11:39) and "In Conversation" (23:48), during which the director sheds some light on the actual production---and though Gondry's French accent has always been tough to follow, there's plenty of good information here. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:58), buried in a selection of previews for other Oscilloscope releases.
Like the main feature, these extras include optional English subtitles for translation purposes only. All are presented in 1.33:1 or letterboxed widescreen format...except for the SXSW footage and the trailer, which are anamorphically enhanced.
Undoubtedly Michel Gondry's most personal film to date, The Thorn In The Heart tends to sag under the weight of its own subject matter. As a true admirer of Gondry's early music videos and feature-length films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Dave Chappelle's Block Party and the underrated Be Kind, Rewind, I was fully prepared to love The Thorn In The Heart...but overall, it's just not that engaging. Oscilloscope's DVD package still offers plenty of support, pairing a decent technical presentation with a handful of quirky but appropriate bonus features. Even so, this is definitely not a film for all tastes, whether you're a die-hard Gondry fan or not. Rent It first, then decide if a purchase is warranted.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.