Michel Gondry's heartfelt and intimate documentary The Thorn in the Heart stands at the intersection of two unique film traditions: a strain of offbeat cinematic autobiography characterized by self-reflexive, patchwork essay films that proliferated on the festival circuit just after the advent of digital video, and a subgenre of French pastoral documentary -- typified by Nicolas Philibert's To Be and to Have and Raymond Depardon's Profils Paysans chronicles -- dedicated to poetically capturing the vicissitudes of Gallic farm life. The subject in this case is Gondry's aunt Suzette, a retired schoolteacher in her eighties who spent the period of 1952-1986 migrating from one hamlet to another, a year or two in each locale, educating French children with the often-unconventional approaches that she saw fit.
Courtesy of a marvelous opener set at a feast around the family dinner table, where Suzette occupies the center chair and entertains everyone (including herself) with an outrageously funny tale about her late husband, Gondry immediately enables the audience to grow enchanted with this magnetic and charismatic woman. He shows us how she functions as the glue that holds kith and kin together, and then moves into the body of the film itself, which intercuts two main threads, both related to Suzette.
One of those threads explores a number of the complicated, issue-ridden dynamics that belie the family's seemingly placid exterior. For example, we learn about the conflicts experienced by Suzette's homosexual son, Jean-Yves, in having a strict disciplinarian who doubled as both mother and teacher; about Jean-Yves' onetime yen to attend culinary school, and his decision to forego this by staying home and working in a sawmill to please his late father; and about Suzette infuriating her children by refusing to relay news of their father's death until two days after it occurred. Director Gondry's success lies in broaching this material with an easy hand. He seems to realize, likely aware of the risks of exploitation associated with unveiling family conflicts, that full disclosure is not merely unnecessary but unwise, perhaps even unethical -- and that pointed and poignant glimpses will more than suffice.
Intercut with this material, the remainder of the footage follows the various geographic stops of Suzette's career, proceeding chronologically from 1952 into the mid-'80s. Gondry adds a much-needed element of narrative structure by dividing this material into chapters. Each begins with the name of a French village where Suzette taught, and each witnesses Suzette's nostalgic return to that particular site as a retiree. Because Gondry remains exclusively focused on Suzette as his subject, we get virtually no cutaways detailing the character or geography of each village -- only close-ups of Suzette reminiscing about her time in the locale at hand -- and that feels entirely appropriate.
The footage itself is emotionally overpowering, and perhaps no more so than in two critical sequences: one recounting Suzette's actions in 1962, when she defied common practice during the Franco-Algerian war by taking in and educating numerous Algerian students, and another, late in the film, that provides visual illustrations of Suzette's individualistic teaching methods -- techniques that included instructing the children in swimming and whisking them off on a series of field trips to unusual sites. In each case, Gondry conveys the particulars with a breathtaking, virtually seamless interpolation of still photographs and home-movie footage.
We do get traces of the stylistic whimsicality that has come to typify Gondry's work throughout the documentary, and the results here are variable. At times, this seems entirely fitting, even ingenious -- as in an instance where he uses stop-motion animation to illustrate a rural movie house with mobile inner walls that Suzette is recalling. On other occasions -- as in the case of an effects-heavy fantasy sequence with schoolchildren trying on clothes to make themselves "invisible" -- it seems merely precious and self-indulgent.
The film's only other major lapse involves an odd passage that recalls Suzette moving to New York for a year with two teenage children. The narrative grows muddled during this sequence, both in terms of the timing in Suzette's life, and in terms of the identity of the children and Suzette's relationship to them.
These lapses aside, the film as a whole represents a fantastic achievement -- haunting, deftly poetic, and beautifully observed. It may constitute something of a departure from Gondry's prior work, but it's a thoroughly welcome one that merits considerable attention.