It’s Time to Talk About Michel Gondry as an Auteur Rather Than as a Music Video Director
Though he would probably reject such a formal label, the French director’s work is certainly worthy of study.
We’ve all been there: Sitting bolt upright in bed, suddenly remembering a pop culture experience we had years ago and suffering future sleepless nights after confirming the detail in the morning. Or maybe it’s something that’s been nagging at us for years, and requires some unpacking—either way, It’s Time to Talk About is our way of bringing these issues to light in hopes that such conversations can become easier in the future. Sometimes it’s better to talk about it.
From what I can remember of reading Andre Breton’s pair of manifestoes that officially launched the surrealist movement in the 1920s, the first one was written with a childlike giddiness, as if the author had invented a new game with his friends and was ecstatically sharing it with his parents over dinner. The second manifesto’s tone was significantly different—still childlike, but only in the sense that Breton became catty in his protection of the game, which was spreading beyond the control of his group of cohorts to folks who clearly didn’t respect the vision he and his copains had laid out. From the beginning surrealism felt like a paradox: an artistic movement reserved for intellectuals attempting to inhabit the limitless mental space of a child, which children and plebes were barred from contributing to because they, uh, weren’t inhabiting the limitless mental space of a child correctly.
This is all to say that had an artist like Michel Gondry been alive a century ago, Andre Breton almost certainly would’ve hated them. Still mostly just known as the guy who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and that White Stripes video with the Legos, Gondry’s feature-filmmaking style is a pure distillation of his playplace of a brain—when he’s not dislodging his protagonists from the present back into their Baby Joel days, he manages to translate his frustrations with the language barrier of being a Frenchman working in America into his screenplays, notably structuring the (almost) entirely dreamlike Science of Sleep and Mood Indigo around interlingual puns. We even see him struggling with language firsthand in his documentary project Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, a film that quickly derails from a straight profile on Noam Chomsky and his soothing, grandfatherly musings on linguistics into one on an at-sea Gondry trying to make sense of language the best way he can: by translating it into crude, squiggly animations reminiscent of a toy LED drawing board.
It’s been six years since Gondry’s made a new feature-length film after a prolific period between the 2004 release of Eternal Sunshine and 2015. He very well could just be regrouping after a failed stab at non-commercial television work, but the fact that none of his films were even nearly as successful as Eternal Sunshine—on top of the fact that his music video work still seems to overshadow his filmmaking career, unlike Spike Jonze and Jonathan Glazer who’ve been invited to sit at cinema’s adult table—makes it seem like there’s little motivation to get back behind the camera to film a full ninety-plus minutes of ideas. Even Nicolas Roeg, who was maligned in his time, at least got off a handful of bizarro, cult-canon-worthy pictures early on in his career before studios cut him off and exiled him to TV—but for some reason the explicit aesthetic and philosophical throughlines of Gondry’s filmography haven’t had much luck in terms of critical preservation.
There’s a complete lack of intellectuality in these films (barring Chomsky’s monologues, and the screenplays of Sunshine and Human Nature with their intense levels of overthinking achievable only by Charlie Kaufman), and I think this is why Gondry’s never been acknowledged as one of the great modern directors—or to use a term hocked by the Breton demographic: auteur. Following the objectively great Eternal Sunshine in 2004, The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind managed to cling to either end of the Gondry spectrum, the former proving inscrutably Jungian (and to some insufferably twee) and the latter channeling his prepubescent brain into something accessible to the whole cineplex-going family. Both movies managed to find sufficient audiences and critical acclaim at the time, but even then felt culturally disposable, what a Noah Baumbach character would refer to as Gondry’s “lesser works.”
But if these two films could be considered “lesser,” everything that followed would have to be considered even lesser-er—he and Seth Rogen will be the first to admit that The Green Hornet should never have been greenlit, while the other five features Gondry made between 2009 and 2015 went virtually unnoticed beyond release week. But I think even the severely undercooked 2009 family doc The Thorn in the Heart has its merits, especially taken within the context of Gondry’s filmography. Much in the same way a Scorsesian mythology was built upon his first two decades of work, Gondry’s movies that lean more toward the visually decadent chaos of Science of Sleep feel informed by Eternal Sunshine and expand upon the visual thesis Gondry contributed to the film’s rational backbone as written by Kaufman. By 2013’s Mood Indigo, his work was completely unchecked surrealism—and yet even a scene depicting a literal automatic writing machine did little to elicit the intellectual origins of the genre.
This is likely because even in a film adapted from a novel by a verified French surrealist, reverently surreal concepts like the cocktail-making piano and a character named Jean-Sol Parte sound like spoonerisms misprocessed by the brain of an eight-year-old—perhaps the same pre-teen mentality that inhabits his 1998 debut short film The Letter and returns for his most recent feature, 2015’s Microbe & Gasoline. Even his adult characters—most notably (and likely most autobiographically) Stepháne in Science of Sleep, a name he shares with the pre-teen subject of The Letter—act like heartbroken children, with potty humor wafting through each of his features (he’s literally made a film about being harassed by his own feces), and his signature kindergarten arts-and-crafts aesthetic working its way into movies otherwise based in reality in creative ways. It feels like a new take on an insufferable formula flaunted by self-pitying intellectuals like Woody Allen where the filmmaker pegs such behavior to arrested development rather than to how hard it is to explain Bergman to the teens you’re still dating well into your forties.
Conversely, even the goofy, family-friendly popcorn-flick Gondry movies feel like the responsible Hugos to his single Taxi Driver. Be Kind Rewind is very much a movie with Jack Black in it, yet the film heavily advocates for DIY artistry, independent retailership, and the historical and cultural legacy of local artistry—it’s more an homage to Cinema Paradiso than a spiritual sequel to Nacho Libre. The criminally unseen The We and the I realistically depicts the social lives of inner-city teens in real time and in a single setting, miraculously revealing their often-tragic inner lives over the course of the film while eloquently musing on the different performative masks humans trade out based on their specific sum of their audience. He also uses a teenaged cast to demonstrate the pitfalls of creative success in his incredible (and incredibly restrained) 2008 short Interior Design, meditating on a unique tunnel vision which reduces loved ones to mere objects of comfort and support rather than empathy and compassion.
An appraisal of Gondry’s films isn’t meant to diminish his work with music videos by any means—his “Knives Out” video is still by far my favorite cinematic experience with that title. But after the cancellation of his recent Showtime series Kidding (like his films, nobody seemed to care about the project despite its reunion of Jim Carrey with the guy who gave him his Uncut Gems), it seems like Michel is getting back into music videos. Which, again, is exciting—his recent IDLES visual feels like he’s back on the nursery floor with all his toys laid out in front of him. But like most of his peers in the Directors Label series, Gondry’s proved that his commendably weird music video ideas do translate to cinema, even when they’re not injected with the intelligent humor of a Charlie Kaufman.
“Cerebral” only seems to work for audiences when there’s some vague notion of a deep truth behind it. But Gondry’s cerebral vision totally holds water, even when you look past the deep truths embedded in, say, a movie that bravely casts Mos Def as Jack Black’s foil. It’s a cinema of weird thoughts bouncing around a visionary’s brain, extracted before they’re anywhere near unpacked; it’s somehow a Wes Anderson level of aestheticization and a Cassavettes-like sense of improvisation without the Tarantino sneer of pastiche. His is a woozy, egalitarian vision caught somewhere between lucid dreaming and hallucinated reality, leaving it up to the audience to discern what’s real, how real it is, and how important it is to even make that distinction. It may not be surrealism as Breton had painstakingly laid it out, but it’s certainly humanism in its finest form. FL