A filmmaker in crisis finds inspiration in the mountains in Michel Gondry's first film in eight years.
Michel Gondry’s protagonists are often dreamers, tinkerers, or otherwise stand-ins for the director; his films frequently reflect on his whirligig, handmade creativity, and reveal a hidden core of melancholy beneath all the papier-máché sets, cardboard props, and snarls of D.I.Y. electric wiring. Science of Sleep, for instance, is about an aspiring artist and illustrator of whimsical drawings, who struggles with loneliness and fails to connect with others; the teenaged title characters of Microbe and Gasoline, who build a house-on-wheels from scrap and drive it around France, use art and craft to overcome their youthful insecurities.
With The Book of Solutions, Gondry offers his most explicit author surrogate yet, as well as his harshest self-critique. Both a cute, crowd-pleasing comedy and a confession, the film stars Pierre Niney as an antic director who struggles to buckle down and finish his next movie while engaging in monstrously selfish behavior, notably the verbal abuse and intimidation of the underlings dedicated to enabling his wildest dreams.
As the film opens, Marc Becker (Niney) is fired by his producers from his own film, an unfinished, four-hour surrealist period piece which, in snippets, looks like Gondry’s Mood Indigo, which ran over budget and was ultimately released in the U.S. in a truncated cut. Scrappily, with the aid of his editor and a few other devoted collaborators (including one woman whom Marc, in voiceover, senses will “save” him), Marc liberates the footage and retires to a country house to finish the edit—as Gondry did in real life.
The house belongs to Marc’s aunt Denise, modeled on Gondry’s own aunt Suzette, the subject of his documentary The Thorn in the Heart, to whom Book of Solutions is dedicated. As played by the beatific Françoise Lebrun, Denise is kind, patient, supportive; when Marc sits at the kitchen table, head in hands, in a heap of despair, Denise gently lifts him back up, out of her way, so she can continue cleaning. One sees that Marc must have been a lovable and loved child, encouraged up his peaks of energy and indulged through his valleys of self-pity.
Going off his antidepressants cold turkey, Marc is full of ideas, each of which he pursues with speed-ramp vigor until he abandons it halfway through, because he has a new idea and needs to chase it before he forgets what it is. He teaches himself new skills, from carpentry to composition, and Gondry embellishes the action with the kind of surreal, wide-eyed doodles that have characterized his work since his early music videos: when Marc stays up into the wee small hours to build a stop-motion animation set-up, you can bet Gondry will show us the film he makes, about a paper cut-out fox and his various adventures.
Niney, with his wide eyes, nervous mouth, and flighty gestures, perfectly embodies the agile, hyperactive spirit of Gondry’s films; when Marc announces that he’ll compose the score to his film on the fly, he conducts the orchestra through a rubbery, improvised interpretive dance, it’s a useful precis of the whole Gondry project, willfully amateur and infectiously joyful. You can see why Marc’s crew risked their careers to follow him to chez Denise; why they permit him to micromanage them because he has just such a brilliant idea (edit the film backwards!), or to wake them up in the middle of the night with urgent requests only tangentially related to their nominal jobs; why they forgive him when he just can’t help himself from throwing tantrums, breaking plates, and lashing out cruelly, denigrating their work with vicious, personal vitriol, whenever he receives even the slightest setback.
He’s a perfect solipsist, who takes every cough from his assistant editor as a personal affront and conspiracy to destroy his focus, and calls his assistant a coward and an underminer for pushing back against one of his worst ideas. He can’t help it, he’s just so antsy over his art.
A largely naturalistic style, and specificity about details like Marc’s meds, ground this autobiographical film squarely in its creator’s psychology, but Gondry keeps the tone lightly comic, even as his main character’s unstoppable torrent of ideas becomes increasingly manic. His witty voiceover – always endearingly unself-aware – becomes increasingly grandiose and deluded as he descends into paranoia and violent fantasy (there is a conspiracy board), which drew some of the film’s biggest laughs at the screening I attended.
The critical distance Gondry establishes from his very charismatic on-screen avatar shows the creative discipline lacking in Marc’s work, and the perspective lacking in his behavior until the film ends with apologies and self-deprecation. Gondry makes the tale of how he weaponizes his neurodivergence to manipulate people around him adorable in the telling. He’s impossible to stay mad at, that little devil.
Published 22 May 2023
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