Michel Gondry is a French director of one of my favourite films; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He has made this wonderful documentary about his aunt, the matriarch of the Gondry clan. The Thorn in the Heart is somewhat of a road trip of Suzette Gondry’s life as a teacher in small rural towns in France. It is also an insight into her relationship with her son and the workings of family life with its pitfalls, struggles and joys. Right from its opening scene around the family dinner table you are drawn into the lives of these people and the complexities of their ties to each other.
The road trip starts in a small village school where in 1954 Suzette had her first job, she is married with children and the set up is very basic indeed but like a lot of people who grew up in the war she seemingly took it all in her stride. Along the way we meet teachers and school children and visit old schools and towns, more importantly we also meet her son Jean-Yves; their relationship is compelling and this is their story.
One of the most interesting conceits is that we see the filmmakers in the film too, not just as passing interviewers but as part of Suzette’s current life and its history. We also get to see the nuts and bolts of some of their work all the while explaining their processes to Suzette. Michel Gondry uses an eclectic mix of photos, home videos (both of the family and of the school children), and up to date footage along with animation to being this story to life. The soundtrack features lots of nostalgic tunes as well as some whimsical modern music. As Gondry started out in a band and then moved to music videos before features he has a good ear for what works in every scene.
As with all families there are secrets and lies and differing accounts of the same events. “It’s always the same in this family, blame Suzette” our heroine moans when her son insists his poor school report was her fault. There is such an interesting contrast between the seemingly well-adjusted adults with mostly fond memories of Suzette as their teacher and her son Jean-Yves with his mental health problems and old resentments. It makes you remember how much influence our teachers have on us and the nostalgia we attach to those school days. Suzette seemed to be able to breeze through her working life but the sensibilities and strengths that worked in the classroom didn’t always work at home.
Having a family member making a documentary makes for hilarious and touching moments you might otherwise never get to see. From “The Drying Rack Tragedy” to Michel berating himself for being mean to his subject the closeness of the filmmaker to Suzette brings a whole new dimension to what we are viewing. To have a documentary about essentially an old lady, an alien race under represented in films, who has lived a relatively “normal” life inasmuch as anyone does, is totally compelling. When she recounts how when she retired she had no idea how to relate to her elderly peers because she had spent her whole life surrounded by children and young parents you sense her bewilderment at what her new role could be. However her spirit always wins through, avant garde is how she is described by ex pupils and work mates and she says of herself “I’m independent, I won’t be dictated to”.
If you love Etre et Avoir then this film is for you. It is an utterly charming and whimsical film. It has got heart and soul and touches you somewhere in the back of your mind where your memories live. It is sometimes dreamlike in feel and lingers on memories; how they are so powerful and yet can be deceptive. Memory is the theme we are drawn back to again and again in this documentary and it is reflective of much of Michel Gondry’s fictional work. This is a great addition to his canon and an honest and loving way to capture the characters that helped shape his life.