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The Thorn in the Heart (L'épine dans le coeur)
(No longer in theaters)
Much of Michel Gondry’s TheThorn in the Heart is deceptively ordinary, a rambling home movie. The center, ostensibly, is Gondry’s trim, white-haired aunt Suzette, who had a long career moving from one small town to another teaching grade school. Gondry and Suzette retrace her steps. One of her old schools is a private home, and they can’t get in. Others are crumbling. She once taught children of French-Algerian soldiers, “Harkis.” She was strict, we’re told, but also “avant-garde.” The film would be of zero interest to those outside the Gondry family were it not for a figure hovering just outside the story’s frame. This is her son, Jean-Yves, middle-aged and awkward, his unruly hair barely tamed by a headband. Sometimes he has the dazed affect of a simpleton, but there is nothing about him that’s simple. Interviewed beside his mother, Jean-Yves simultaneously attempts to convey and keep the lid on his emotions. He looks down, to the side, purses his lips, trembles. In the end, he cannot counter his mother’s stark judgments. So he is silent.
The Thorn in the Heart can best be viewed—and appreciated—as Gondry speaking for his cousin, although the director has worked hard to disguise that aim. One thinks of Hamlet’s advice to the players: “By indirections find directions out.” Jean-Yves, forced to take his mother’s classes, once refused to open his mouth and earned a “zero.” Silence was safer. After leaving school, he went to work beside his father, Jean-Guy. He was gay, but never confessed his homosexuality and had a series of breakdowns. Only gradually do we perceive the deeper connection between Jean-Yves and Michel. Jean-Yves once made home movies, and the one we’re shown has a primitive magic. The chugging model trains that introduce each town Gondry visits were built by Jean-Yves in his youth. His mother, though, regards him as weak—the thorn in her heart. It was her nephew Michel whom she knew to be special.
One reason Gondry is so worthy of our indulgence (and he demands to be indulged) is his reverence for the simplest ways of making art. The director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and so many wizardly music videos makes a point of traveling backwards, away from his own virtuosity, as if in search of the Michelangelo-like spark between a child and his or her first artistic tool. The Thorn in the Heart is full of those childish epiphanies. One sequence ends with a music video in which small children at one of Suzette’s old schools romp around in “invisible costumes”—shirts or pants they don to make parts of them “disappear” in front of a green screen. Their joy is so infectious that your heart breaks even more for the one child whose spirit Suzette didn’t nurture. This is an extraordinary film.