Whether innovative and whimsical or gimmicky and precious, the singularity of Michel Gondry's visual imagination is hardly in doubt. But since working from Charlie Kaufman scripts on his first features Gondry has been fashioning his own stories, and the results have been tepid: The Science of Sleep's self-critical introspection drowned in a forced sense of wonder, while concept-heavy Be Kind Rewind flubbed a Capra-esque Kumbaya that never felt convincing, or earned.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party eased the heavy lifting of narrative, Gondry's major weakness, but new documentary The Thorn in the Heart feels off, its conflict too deeply buried and the stakes barely raised. The subject is aunt Suzette Gondry, an elderly woman who relates the story of her life as an itinerant teacher in rural, post-war France. The ruins of old schoolhouses are visited, former students encountered, the history of France's immigrant populations grazed, but none of it's enough to sustain lasting, or even short-lived, interest. Suzette's tale, while touching, lacks drama, and so Gondry halfheartedly compensates with his trademark grab bag of DIY tricks (claymation, "invisible clothing," unrehearsed reenactments) and a subplot about Jean-Yves, Suzette's gay and possibly mentally unstable son whose filial discontent hints at something dark and unresolved within Gondry's latest version of cinema-fostered community. The Suzette-Jean-Yves relationship doesn't quite achieve the Oedipal power of, say, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, though one wishes not to be too harsh toward Gondry—unwilling to probe due to his natural gentility, he's simply underestimated how soft is too soft a touch.
Opens April 2