The Thorn in the Heart, a difficult and personal turn for director Michel Gondry, centers on his aunt Suzette, a retired teacher who lives in the isolated Cévennes region of France. Starting out as a chronicle of Suzette’s working life as an itinerant countryside schoolteacher in the 1960s and 70s, the documentary probes deeper into her uneasy relationship with her gay son Jean-Yves.
Low-key and probing, the documentary doesn’t seem like a Gondry film at first glance. We follow Suzette as she takes us on an archeological tour of her old schools, many now private homes (or occasionally, piles of rubble) and meets with former students. Alongside this regional history there are interviews with Jean-Yves, a shy forty-something model train enthusiast, on the subjects of his father’s death, his nervous breakdown, and his mother’s persistent disapproval. But it happens slowly. So much of the filmmaking process is included–fixing a broken dolly, prompting the actors to reenact events for the camera, scrutinizing the dailies–that Gondry seems to be letting us in on a rare uncontrolled production, as he works patiently and waits for the emotional content of his story to be revealed.
This is not to say he lets the film escape without being stamped with some of his signature whimsy. Gondry takes scheduled breaks from his heavy family story, once to donate some supercool “invisible clothing” to local schoolchildren, and later to re-build an outdoor cinema at an old classroom site (the crew screens the classic 1940s maritime drama Remorques). The animation work for 2006’s The Science of Sleep was executed at the Gondry studio in Cévennes, and he takes full advantage of the proximity, illustrating his subjects’ stories in stop-motion, goofing around with paper and clay to lighten the tone.
Though it’s a tough and personal turn for a filmmaker usually associated with fantasy, pop music and dreams, The Thorn in the Heart works well for what it is, perhaps by virtue of the strange and gorgeous landscape it’s shot in–the stormy dark canyons, and the pines and bare trees of the Cévennes. And just like in these bad-dream worlds, nothing’s really resolved for the Gondrys in this doc, though a lot of idiomatic territory is covered. “Jean-Yves is the thorn in my heart,” Suzette tells Michel. Her nephew can get the whole family together to make a film, he can screen old Super 8 home movies and ask probing questions, but he can’t fake a happy ending. To his credit, he doesn’t try. Here he is on the challenges of shooting a documentary, the France that inspires him, and his next picture, the Christoph Waltz’s low confidence.
Did you start out intending to make a film about Suzette’s relationship with her son? No. I wanted to make a film about Suzette and her history and her professional life. That’s what she wanted, what she expected to do. She would not talk about her son or the fact that he was homosexual, and it took me four years get her to this place. When we started shooting, she wanted me to go there, because she asked him to come work as a cook, and then we started to interview him as a [student] because it was hard to find [former students of Suzette’s. And then we saw that the drama was there and we had to go in that direction.
Was difficult to get her to go there? She didn’t want to! She had many interesting things to say about him, but she didn’t want me to film it and that was a big problem. It was not manipulation, it was just persistence on my side and trust on her side. She felt a little betrayed, but it was a hard blow for her when she saw the film finished. I think overall it’s been a process that she’s on better terms with her son than she was before.
Do you find that as a director when you make the shift to documentary from fiction, do you make an adjustment in your filming style? There is differences where you don’t [begin] with the story, but there is a similarity where you have to find a way to make the subject you are shooting forget about the camera and lose control. If you really want to know who they are, you have to find a way to break that. The beauty of the documentary is that you really don’t know what you are looking for, and you want to find something, that’s for sure. Whatever you find you have to accept it and go deeper in that direction. If you know exactly what you want to find you are going to twist people until they tell you exactly what you want them to say, and it’s not honest.
At one point, Suzette says, “Even if I don’t want to do something, I’ll do it, it’s a very Cévennes attitude.” Can you help American audiences understand the Cévennes? It’s a mountain region that is also a national park, so it’s very preserved. People are very enclosed because it’s very high and has a very long winter. There is definitely something that could be a little frightening about it. But it’s beautiful. I love this country, it’s very harsh. That, plus the fact that she grew up eighty years ago. For instance, she had to walk ten miles every morning and evening to go to school, that was perfectly normal for her. That’s a different way of life.
Whose idea was it to rebuild the outdoor cinema? I think that probably the Director of Photography, who was very fond of filmmaking and wanted to gather people. I thought it would be contrived, and it was really on the brink of being a disaster, because it was about to rain and it was cold, but people really loved it. He brought people back together. He put many things together and relived this moment, and you could see the emotion underneath these people because they could really appreciate the experience.
How did the animation you incorporated help you tell the story? It started because I thought it would be nice for people that participated in the film to have a little moment. I think it was for me, the opportunity to do something I really like. I think it’s a breathing time for the audience, because there are a lot of heavy moments. We need some recreation in both senses of the term. Like in French, recreation is the same word for recess. That was really the recess for the audience as well.
How did you get the band Anvil involved in The Green Hornet? I was invited by the director to this screening, and I saw the documentary and liked it so much. That’s an example of the type of film I like, to really take the time to be with people and you capture the most amazing moments. And I think that’s was the best thing I have seen in recent years, and so they came and played in front of the screen and it was magical. I don’t like heavy metal, but it doesn’t matter.
What can you tell me about Christoph Waltz’s character? He is a super villain with some faults.
What kind of faults? He’s not very confident.