From his little boy face and visually euphoric films, Michel Gondry strikes one as a whimsical French elf, a wide-eyed man-child equipped with a naïf's sensitivity and wonder. His music videos for Björk and The White Stripes are the stuff of dreams and romper rooms. His best movies, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Science of Sleep," cast life and love as subconscious reveries beating with a tender, aching heart. Often, cardboard, crayons and cotton balls are involved.
In that sense, his new film, the personal documentary "Thorn in the Heart," is very un-Gondry-esque. It's a straight-forward portrait of Gondry's favorite aunt, Suzette Gondry, exploring her many years as a school teacher in the French countryside and her prickly relationship with her adult son Jean-Yves. Gondry and much of his extended family appear in the movie, which delicately untangles the dynamics that keep people together and pulls them apart.
"Thorn in the Heart" screens Saturday during the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, and the director will appear on the panel "A Conversation with Michel Gondry" on Sunday. Both events are at the Austin Convention Center.
Gondry called us this week from Hollywood, where he's deep in post-production on the big-budget superhero movie "The Green Hornet," starring Seth Rogen and recent Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds"). Amiable and candid - he revealed that his girlfriend recently dumped him - Gondry speaks in broken English, with a sometimes impenetrable French accent.
Chris Garcia: What's so compelling about your Aunt Suzette that you wanted to make a feature-length documentary about her?
Michel Gondry: I've always been fascinated by people with experience, who have lived. My Auntie has such a precise recollection that I was fascinated. We had this special relationship when I was younger. I spent a lot of summers staying at her house in the mountains. I liked that she was a teacher. She would teach me about geology and different kinds of rocks in the mountains. All her stories and all the school she had taught interested me. At the same time, she had very difficult relationships in her family, with her husband and her son, Jean-Yves. The conflicts were not resolved. I appreciated what she could remember and teach me and tell me. The rest of the family saw her as somebody angry, and I always saw her as generous. She got softer with age. She was getting along, and I was afraid that all her stories would be lost when she passed away, so I wanted to collect them. But what I didn't see in advance was all the tension that would make the story more compelling about her son and how it would become the main axis of the film.
Can you describe their relationship? In the film she calls him `weak' and `crazy.'
They don't have the best relationship, at all. As much as she was great to me, she didn't accept his weakness. Sometimes I would ask her, "Why do you accept me? I am not stronger than Jean-Yves. I have my weaknesses. I cry, and I have problems." And she always told me that as a kid I didn't have to be taken care of. I was self-sufficient, I would play with a piece of wood and a crayon and paper. But he gets on her nerves all the time. It's not a very nice relationship. I didn't want to shy away from it. It took me a long time to get her to talk about him.
What's wrong with him? Is he mentally disturbed?
I don't think so. He was not very well taken care of when he was a kid. He's quite weak. He's had nervous breakdowns. He's much better now. I think the documentary helped him to sort of reconstruct himself a little bit. For the film, I asked him to rebuild this giant model train kit that he had when we were kids. He's 11 years older than me, so he was like a great older cousin, really fun to be around. Rebuilding the train made him feel useful, I think.
Why do you think people would want to watch this? What's the movie's universal appeal?
Real life is interesting. Everybody has stories, family stories that are amazing and sometimes very dark. When you look at them with honesty and listen to every perspective you can untangle the knots and make things better. Observing someone's life is so removed from what you see in movies that it's always interesting. … Maybe the audience thinks, "Well, that's your personal problems. Why should we witness it?" I think if you confront a problem and open the wound it's always interesting to share. And it's interesting because those stories exist in most families.
Were you inspired by any other intimate family documentaries such as `Grey Gardens'?
Yes, of course. I have Netflix at home, and I cannot watch fiction films. I always watch documentaries. They are much richer, they have much more dimension, and when you see something amazing, you know it's for real, not just from the imagination.
You're working on `The Green Hornet' now, by far your biggest film. I've heard nightmarish things about very artistic filmmakers working on huge Hollywood movies because you can't be as creative as you're used to.
Oh, I was very creative! Believe me. I don't usually go into a room thinking the guy in front of me is a (jerk). I always try to understand what his position is. When somebody spends $100-plus-million on your project, you have to expect that there are going to be some consequences - advantages and constraints. It's sort of a miracle that I get to do this movie. So I work with them.
Will it look like a Michel Gondry film? Will it have any of your crazy animation and hand-made art?
No, there is no home-made art or cardboard. Thank God, because I'm really tired of that. But there is really a spirit that I can claim in it.
You're tired of the handmade art?
Here's what happened. I like handmade art and being creative. The problem is, I make a movie and there is some cardboard in it, and then people who work on the DVD and the Web sites, they all want to be like me because they think it's more fun. But they make a caricature of me. And they will not let me decide anything, so they make their own version of what they think I would do. Then it becomes a caricature, and people start to see the gimmick. The good thing is that it forced me to move away from that.
Michel Gondry at the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference
Gondry presents his documentary ‘Thorn in My Heart' at 7 p.m. Saturday in the G-Tech Theater at the Austin Convention Center
‘A Conversation with Michel Gondry,' a panel during the film conference, at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD
When: Today through March 21
Venues: G-Tech Theater at the Austin Convention Center (501 E. Fourth St.); Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth St.): Alamo South (1120 S. Lamar Blvd.); Bob Bullock IMAX Theatre (1800 N. Congress Ave.); Carver Theater (1165 Angelina St.); The Hideout (617 Congress Ave.); Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.)
Film badge: $475, includies conference and films; Film pass: $70
Single screening tickets: $10-$12