Making a small deviation from his effects-laden Hollywood outings, Michel Gondry turns the camera on his own family, specifically his aunt Suzette who spent her life teaching in remote villages in the South of France leaving a lasting impression on many of her pupils, several of whom reunite to discuss her methods and fervent personality. Amongst these sequences are fleeting dissections of her difficult relationship with her troubled son Jean-Yves, now a mechanic seemingly unable to cut ties with his birthplace, both in terms of geography and a dysfunctional parental bond.
Opening with a family dinner in the Cévennes, Aunt Suzette tries to recall an incident concerning her husband’s eating habits, barely able to complete her sentences as she’s overwhelmed by laughter. A relative off-camera begs her to finish the story arguing, “We might not even find it funny.” Suzette does eventually manage to bring the tale to an end but the audience may well find themselves agreeing with the former statement, reduced to a third wheel observing an anecdote which requires far more background information to share in her enjoyment and the convivial atmosphere of the dinner table.
The title derives from Suzette’s confession that her son is “the thorn in my heart”, frustrated by her powerlessness to turn back time and try a different approach with Jean-Yves who, unwilling to disappoint his father, chose to stay and work at the sawmill rather than move elsewhere, a decision which might have granted both his sexuality and personal development some freedom. Instead, his spare time is spent in solitude, obsessively building model railways, many of which are used by Gondry to denote shifts in location.
It’s tempting to compare The Thorn In The Heart thematically with previous Gondry ventures: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Be Kind, Rewind come to mind. However, any remote semblances there might be (the ability of memories to elicit joy and invoke a profound a sense of loss, sometimes simultaneously) one must conclude them to be co-incidental considering the documentary format. Arguably Gondry will have known what to expect, to some extent, having been so well acquainted with his own relatives and whilst documentaries can often successfully masquerade as the ‘truth’ one must remain conscious that anything shot on celluloid or digital will eventually succumb to the whim of the editor which inevitably leads to a distillation of reality. Nevertheless, family members are often startlingly frank or are incapable of suppressing their deeper feelings, perceivable by a vocal quiver or an unexpected emotional introversion. Oddly, it is in these moments that the film is at its most involving and its most distancing, an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism lingering not far from the foreground.
Perhaps it is Michel Gondry’s affection for his aunt, an undeniably endearing presence, which clouded his judgement in making The Thorn In The Heart public. An ode to his aunt undoubtedly but, by the same turn, one wonders if it serves as an unnecessary over exposure for his cousin, a prominently private figure who carries the burden of his parents’ expectations and his own self-evaluated failures. Unlike My Architect (2003) where an illegititmate son retraces his father through the monuments he left behind, Gondry’s film is left without the same sense of discovery or an unearthing of familial friction making it a rather inward looking experiment that keeps the audience at an arm’s length where we should be pressed up against the breast.