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Primitive Magic

Michel Gondry’s heartrending family documentary. Plus, some mighty dull Titans.

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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.

Clash of the Titans makes a good case study for what’s wrong with the Hollywood-blockbuster mentality. It isn’t a train wreck—a train wreck would be memorable. What’s wrong is wrong by design.

The 1981 original, with Laurence Olivier snorting at Maggie Smith alongside jerky Ray Harryhausen stop-motion beasties, is terrible—the only thing mythic is its tackiness. But it does have that tragicomic theme central to Greek myth: that the cruel fates of humans can best be explained by gods and goddesses fighting among themselves like randy rich kids with too much power.

The new Clash has been reworked as a (yawn) revenge saga. Zeus’s son, Perseus (Avatar’s Sam Worthington), is out to git Ralph Fiennes’s Hades for killing his adopted human family. He barely restrains himself when the god materializes out of swirling black smoke and, in a plangent Shakespearean belch, informs the insufficiently reverent Perseus that he’s going to unleash his deadliest monster, the Kraken. But Worthington is too old and too stolid to make an affecting juvenile warrior. The CGI monsters, meanwhile, are overcomplicated. Medusa—a supermodel’s head atop a serpent’s body—would be scarier if she were simpler. The Kraken looks like an octopus with the head of a very pissed-off turtle. Somewhere the balrog is laughing its ass off.

In the middle of Clash of the Titans, I took off my 3-D glasses, and even though the image was slightly blurry, the film became more involving. Gone was the look of a pop-up greeting card: Director Louis Leterrier knows how to bring out the primordial beauty of the rocky desert landscapes. The trendy technology, trendy revenge formula, trendy miscast hunk: It all fights against the story. The secret of the Hollywood gods that control our movies’ fates is that they’re dullards.

The Thorn in the Heart
Oscilloscope Pictures. NR.

Clash of the Titans
Warner Bros. Pictures. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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