Gondry’s doc centers on his aunt, Suzette, a septuagenarian in good health and spirits, and follows as she and others revisit the events (figuratively) and locales (literally) from her life, like the countryside écoles where she once taught, many now reduced to rubble. (Those serve as visual demonstrations of the passage of time and the fragility of the material—that is, they’re poignant.) Her life includes minor intersections with French history—Algerian immigrants!—and Gondry tells her story with characteristic whimsy: shots of HO-scale trains to suggest geographic movement; tongue-in-cheek recreations of minor comedic moments that the camera missed; playful experiments with children and special effects; and precious soundtracking.
Former students recall Suzette fondly; her gay son, Jean-Yves, offers a slight counternarrative, gently rebutting the grandness of the mythology created around her. Most “My Family” docs, like Must Read After My Death or the recent Phyllis and Harold purport to uncover disturbingly dark Family Secrets, which turn out to be neither exceptional nor particularly interesting. The Thorn in the Heart, at least, has the decency not to pretend that this story is unique or earth shattering; even homosexuality is treated more with a shrug than a gasp. It’s simply a love-letter from a nephew, inoffensive and somewhat pleasant, even when exploring the family’s less than rosy moments.
Still, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also tiresomely self-indulgent—pointless, slight, and digressive (it includes a sojourn to New York City that amounts to nothing), though anchored by a charming, revealing and not particularly self-aggrandizing heroine. If she were my aunt, I’d probably want to make a nice movie about her, too. I’m just not sure if I’d release it to the world. Near the end of the movie, Gondry screens the (near-)finished product for the family and films their lachrymose reactions. Presumably, it was the film’s first screening. Maybe it should have been its last, too.
The Thorn in The Heart screens tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the IFC Center.