Director Michel Gondry is known for his innovative and creative video and film projects. It seems surprising that a documentary about his aunt Suzette would be his latest project. However, after seeing the film, it earns its place among Gondry’s other work as being an endearing experience.
Using a mix of home videos, recent interviews and a little animation, “Thorn in the Heart” tells the story of Suzette Gondry’s life as a teacher in France and her relationship with her son. Interviews are taken from various family members and former students and employees about Suzette. The documentary is a true labor of love for Michel Gondry’s aunt, who it is easy to see Gondry loves very much.
However, a darker theme runs throughout the film. Suzette’s relationship with her son has been estranged and is difficult for both of them. She used to teach him and he sees her in a very different light than Gondry. Just as it was difficult for Gondry to see this side of his aunt, it is difficult for the audience to see it as well.
The two parts of the story hardly seem to relate in the film, but Gondry continues to bring up Suzette’s teaching even though it interrupts the timeline between Suzette and her son. Gondry is successful in keeping our attention, but not always our interest as the two stories switch back and forth.
After the showing at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre May 28, Gondry took part in a Question-and-Answer session with the audience (moderated by the unimpressive David Wagner). At the Q&A, Gondry admitted he had originally set out to make a film just about his aunt’s teaching career — however, he found it to be a flat story. Whenever he started to interview Suzette’s son, he found there was much more that needed to be said — and that it was worthy of making a film. The making of “Thorn in the Side” also allowed Gondry to help his family. Suzette’s son was unemployed during filming and Gondry hired him to do the transitions with his train set (Gondry also made it possible for his cousin to have his train set on exhibit in Paris). After watching the documentary, Suzette sent an email to Gondry saying that she has realized it is time to make things better between her and her son. Gondry also said the film allowed him to get some misapprehensions out of his head. One in particular is about Suzette taking her son off her taxes after he came out.
Gondry also talked about the way he likes to make films. His favorite moments from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” were those that were unscripted. As a filmmaker and storyteller, he would rather go in blind and see where story takes him. In particular, he referenced “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” where Gondry originally had no idea what would happen. Gondry admitted that in art school he used to just copy ideas from his fellow students. As he got some videos and few films under his belt, however, he realized that he had come up with a unique style without even realizing it. Gondry said that he believes that a filmmaker cannot try to come up with his own style, but it “must come from a place you’re not in control of.”
Overall, the film and the Q&A session were a way to make complete strangers see the importance of one woman and how she changed peoples’ lives: many times for the better, but also for the worse. If anyone has ever inspired you, then you will understand where Gondry is coming from, but like Gondry, you eventually find out that that person is not a hero to everyone.
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