Le Retour: “Microbe and Gasoline” is Michel Gondry’s Best in Years

The once (and future?) visionary director returns with this strongest flick since 2008's Be Kind Rewind.

Michel Gondry’s latest feels like a compromise in the best sense: it’s scaled like an indie, it concerns itself with the theme of artists finding comfort in a creative space, and it’s in Gondry’s native French. Unlike the director’s soppy magical-realist fable Mood Indigo or his Noam Chomsky documentary, Microbe and Gasoline doesn’t seem to tip too far in either the one-for-them or one-for-me direction, but rather satisfyingly synthesizes the populist and the personal. In this sense, it’s not unlike Gondry’s modest, crowd-pleasing The We and the I from 2012—his best film this decade—but it’s freed of the single-location concept and thus even more accessible.

Perhaps most of all, Microbe and Gasoline plays like an adolescent riff on Gondry’s Jack Black and Mos Def–starring buddy comedy Be Kind Rewind. But instead of a shared affinity for outmoded moviemaking, the two young boys here bond over their status as high school outcasts, and by stoking each other’s mutual desire to think outside the box—an idea that’s poked fun at in a cleverly tactile way when they build a vehicle from scratch, are unable to get it past a DMV inspection, and subsequently sheath it in a rectangular garden shed as camouflage.

This trick comes from the mind of Daniel, a.k.a. Microbe (Ange Dargent), the more logical of the two, but it’s brought to convincing life by Théo, a.k.a. Gasoline (Théophile Baquet), an aspiring mechanic with a fanciful imagination—he adds a flower box with geraniums to his partner’s initial design. Both boys have a tendency to bring out the best work in each other, but that’s not generally because their characters conform to the typical dynamic of one’s strengths compensating for the other’s weaknesses. Instead, Gondry concentrates on the power of solidarity: Théo and Daniel find inspiration in an empathetic ear, listening to each other’s problems, talking through them together, and gaining a piece of mind as they go to work.

Even through a flurry of episodic incidents, Gondry never loses sight of the friendship developing at his film’s center.

The chemistry and relaxed sense of comfort between Microbe and Gasoline’s two young protagonists in the film’s early scenes is so appealing, and their characters’ relationships to their respective families so primed for further exploration, that it’s almost a disappointment when the plot activates and Daniel and Théo take to the road for a trek across the French expanse in their homemade boxcar. But even through a flurry of episodic incidents—including an aborted haircut courtesy of a couple of Japanese prostitutes, a not-quite rendezvous with Daniel’s love interest, and a fire at a gypsy camp—Gondry never loses sight of the friendship developing at his film’s center.

Likewise, Gondry’s whimsy and visual inventiveness here more than usual feel like the manifestation of his characters’ own efforts, so much so that even filmic grammar is given agency through the young creatives—as is the case with the device that first endears Daniel to Théo, a modded bike with built-in laugh- and applause- sound effects. Gondry’s dedication to investing his aesthetic with a sense of personal expression tends to be felt most in the films he himself writes (the last was, in fact, Be Kind Rewind), but it seems especially appropriate here, as Microbe and Gasoline’s intuitive form allows for not only an understanding of Daniel and Théo’s coming-of-age but also of Gondry’s reconnection with a youthful sense of discovery. FL

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