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Weirder Than Real: The Films of Michel Gondry

By (April 1, 2008) No Comment

A friend of mine related a story to me recently. He was competing in a pub quiz, and his team was ahead as they moved into the penultimate round. In this round, they were given series of numbers, the object being to state the three that would follow next in sequence. The first few were easy (at least, assuming you were mathematically inclined):

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8

The answer to which was: 13, 21, 34. Or another:

1, 7, 10, 13, 19, 23, 28

The answer to which was: 31, 32, 44 (those who had to look up “happy numbers” after an episode of Doctor Who last year had an edge in this one).

As I said, these they found (relatively) easy. Where they were stumped was the following sequence:

8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6

After the allotted time, no one on this team (which included at least a couple of university professors) had the answer, and they had to concede. A few days later, my friend, now knowing the answer himself, put the question to his nieces and nephew, none of whom is over twelve. They looked and looked at the numbers, but they couldn’t come up with the solution. So my friend gave them a hint. “The answer,” he said, “needn’t have anything to do with numbers.”

“Aha!” said one of his nieces after a moment or two. “I know. It’s 3, 2, 0.” And, of course, she was right. That is, there was a bit of translation required, from one system of thought (in this case, numerical order) to another system of thought (in this case, alphabetical order). Perhaps more importantly there was a willingness to engage that translation. It’s just this capacity for lateral thinking, my friend and I agreed, that sets most children apart from most adults.

And it’s a similar sort of edgewise thinking that sets the work of Michel Gondry—whose most recent film, Be Kind Rewind, appeared in theaters in February of this year—apart from that of other directors. To take a charming example, Gondry introduces the Director’s Label DVD (which he co-created with Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham) of his music videos and short films in an easter egg: standing at a table in front of a small audience, he recounts his (lack of) acceptance speech for an award he has won. “I was very stiff,” he explains, “and I couldn’t say a word so I walked away.” At which point off he walks, revealing what we have taken to be the wooden legs of the table to be his own legs, and what we have taken to be his jean-clad legs to be in fact the legs of the table. This bait-and-switch is admittedly a minor case in point, but it neatly sums up Gondry’s affinity for visual trickery—an affinity that is less a handy gimmick than a statement of aesthetic, and even philosophical, purpose.

Allow me to elaborate. It isn’t incredibly often nowadays that we could find ourselves asking of a film, “How? How the hell did they do that?” Computer graphics have largely taken over from earlier forms of cinematic sleight of hand, so the answer—even for special-effects masterpieces like The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Pixar’s better efforts, we can safely assume that the visuals are the result of digital animation rather than, say, stop-motion photography or hand-drawn cartooning. Not that computers necessarily remove labor or make the process of rendering imagination less onerous; what CGI has done away with, rather, is our need (and often our desire) to ask “How?” at all. For Gondry, “How?” is the key question, and his efforts mark not so much a throwback to an earlier age of film-making as a bending of and riffing on the old tricks. As viewers we are encouraged to undo the work before us, to pick apart its filaments, to hold it to the light, to wonder at both its simple beauty and at its ability to be woven up into something far more complex.

Many viewers, and many critics, for that matter, when dealing with Gondry’s work get caught up instead with the question of “Why?” Why are we seeing this here? Why doesn’t there seem to be any clear message? Why isn’t there a plot? Anthony Lane’s oddly vicious review of Be Kind Rewind—he ends by writing: “Be kind. Erase.”—in a recent New Yorker is a case in point. In this film, buddies Mike (played genially by Mos Def) and Jerry (played maniacally by Jack Black) recreate a number of movies themselves after a freak accident erases all the videos at the store Mike has been charged with tending. Naturally the conceit of home videos is difficult to push across, particularly when a large chunk of Gondry’s audience might well never have heard of VHS, and here Lane makes what he considers “the most basic of objections: how many video-only stores do you know?” It is this sort of attention to common sense that Lane finds lacking here, and as a result, he argues, the film is “torn between the claims of nostalgia and a desperate bid to seduce the You-Tube generation.”

Similarly, in an otherwise even-handed review of Gondry’s 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lane decries “the more prosaic rifts opening up in the picture’s credibility.” A lover wishing to scrub her mind of the memories of a soured relationship we can buy (Lane argues); when, in retribution, her erstwhile partner follows suit, limits are being stretched. Furthermore, wonders Lane, “is it only those well versed in the neural sciences who will find something overcooked in the notion that Joel and Clementine might change their minds in mid-wipe and beg, with wounded cries, to be left with a handful of details by which to remember their love? Aren’t they supposed to be asleep during all this?”

Such are the wrong sorts of questions to be asking. (To be fair, Lane was not alone in his befuddlement; I call him out because I generally admire his criticism.) Indeed they seem to me a failure to grasp something fundamental not only about these films in and of themselves but about Gondry’s work as a whole. It is not so much a matter of the suspension of disbelief as it is of finding the right question to ask. Asking Gondry’s films to attend to common sense is like asking a statistician to discourse on how seventeenth-century theater stages influenced the settings of the plays of John Webster: it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for either Gondry or the statistician to assent, and locally each could work through some ideas, but on the whole you would be asking the wrong sort of favor of a person whose talents ultimately lie elsewhere.

So what should we ask of Gondry? Let’s consider some ideas that he lays out in his early work. Kinetics, for example, is particularly important in the music videos. When and how do we listen to music? Frequently we play it in the background—but when it is in the foreground, we are often moving, walking or running in the park, riding the subway, driving a car, or we are dancing, parceling out our breaths and motions to the rhythm of the song. The exciting, visceral quality of Gondry’s music videos is due to the attention he pays to this deeply-rooted impulse—to move, to feel beats, to wholly engage with the music.

A typical music video treats us as simply a spectator; Gondry’s videos, on the other hand, engage more than just our visual sense. The videos for The Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar,” for example, and Björk’s “Joga,” appear at first to be, respectively, a train-ride through the countryside and a flight over an at-times-digital-at-times-actual rendering of Icelandic topographics. Yet, should we look more closely at them than we typically do with this genre of film (which we should only do rarely, since most videos on VH1 and MTV aren’t worth our minute-long attention spans; part of Gondry’s appeal is that he crafts videos which are far more captivating than the songs themselves, his video for Kylie Minogue’s “Come into My World” being an excellent example), we notice elements—a building, say, or a certain plot of grass—being repeated, and not only repeated but repeated according to the dictates of the song. In both of these videos, Gondry translates for us in visual terms the several layers of musical dialogue at work in the songs. One type of drumbeat might be represented by a red house, which we (as viewers on the train-ride) pass by once, twice, thrice, according to the appearance of the beat in the song. Another line of melody finds its expression in the threading of a power line across the sky.

As such, we see not only visuals representing the acoustic kinetics of the music, but we see the various strata of each song deconstructed (and here may be one of the few appropriate uses of this particular term), each teased out and assigned to a particular strand of our optical attention. Thus movement here works to splay the song, to reveal its inner workings in ways that would not have been obvious otherwise.

Gondry’s essential obsession—the one the intertwinings of these elements makes possible—manifests itself in particular types of storytelling, the most dominant being the one concerned with the all-too-fluid but also all-too-fast lines between childhood and adulthood. Gondry himself encourages us to think of him as a perpetual child, as his own documentary, entitled I’ve Been 12 Forever (broken conveniently into “Part 1, Age 12-12,” and “Part 2, Age 12-12”) indicates. There is nonetheless a necessary breaking with the inner child in order to become an adult that might well strike chords with viewers. In Be Kind Rewind as well as in Gondry’s other work, both feature-length and short, we as the audience need to be willing to accept that we are watching someone who has grown up unwillingly and has had to take on the responsibilities commensurate with age but who, even so, continues to possess a childlike wonder at the inner workings of a continually unknowable world.

Gondry’s fascination with the weirdness inherent in how our memories work—the way we remember fragments with greater or less clarity, the way we always build our ideas of people partially from fantasy—points out cinema’s aptness as a medium for cataloguing this process. Indeed, Gondry would argue, not only do we idealize (and even fetishize) our perceived pasts, there will always be the temptation to lose ourselves within them. Gondry’s own directorial imagination manifests itself in a greater attention to pieces than to the whole, and as a result the whole (film, video, etc.) is seldom completely coherent: at its best it wanders and drifts peacefully; at its worst it is nightmarish and uninterpretable. (A good example of “worst” would be the notoriously scatological short film One Day, in which Gondry is followed around by—well, it’s best not to ruin things for the uninitiated. Suffice it to say you may well conceive links between fascism and the digestive process that you would not have thought possible. Try it if you will, just don’t watch it over dinner.) But even though he neglects the whole for its parts, he leaves intact the charm and strangeness of the components and in so doing reveals to greater effect the workings of the creative intellect that invented them to begin with.

Let’s take, as an example, two of Gondry’s films, one long and one short. The 2006 full-length feature The Science of Sleep (written by Gondry) does not lay out a science of anything, and it has much less to do with sleep than with its sometime-companion the dream. The protagonist Stéphane (played by Gael García Bernal)—a representation of Gondry himself, as the director has suggested—floats through Paris in a kind of daze after the death of his father, unsuccessfully holds down a boring job, and lusts after his next-door neighbor Stéphanie (the superb Charlotte Gainsbourg), all while failing to even try to negotiate the difference between real life and dreams. This failure causes dreams and life to bleed into one another, and to sound curious echoes; this is not a film that aims to please the viewer with a carefully-constructed plot (or any semblance of a plot whatsoever). It does, however, invite us to undo its knots, to open it up and peer at the machinery ticking inside. Architectural and bodily distortions, beautiful stop-motion photography sequences, the co-opting of household goods for other (usually nefarious) purposes, a time machine that allows you to travel one second back or ahead—these explore the question not of why but of how. That is, the film’s why is simply the selfishness of a jilted lover, but its how involves myriad curiosities and a trip through the unmappable subconscious.

The black-and-white short film, La Lettre (1998), is the closest relation to The Science of Sleep both in terms of its visual feel and its plot. La Lettre opens with a young boy (similarly named, without coincidence, Stephane) waiting for a photo he has taken to develop; his older brother enters the dark room and the two have a whispered conversation which reveals the photo to be of Aurelie, the girl Stephane loves. “French her!” the older brother urges, “instead of hiding behind your camera all the time!” while Stephane, uncertain, shies away. Stephane then dreams he is at a New Year’s Eve party with a bevy of kissing couples. When the dream-Aurelie appears (in the negative of the developing film) Stephane tries to kiss her but his head has turned into a giant camera. Once awake, Stephane races to Aurelie’s home before she leaves with her family for vacation. She gives him a letter—which he hopes will reveal her love for him—but as he reads it, the sky darkens with an injection of ink and we hear in a voiceover that she confesses her affection for Stephane’s older brother.

The dream sequence—with the chaos of the party, the awkward longing of the protagonist, the enormousness of the camera-head—wends its way, via some translation, into The Science of Sleep. What plot there is in the longer film also hinges on a problematic love-letter, which returns again and again to pick away at the protagonist’s self-confidence; in that sense La Lettre is far kinder to its Stephane in that it allows him the grace of departing after the revelation. Gondry practices in this short not simply the various plot points but elements of composition: the ink-darkened sky is a dry-run for Gondry’s later twirling paint-camera technique, which shows up in the opening credits of The Science of Sleep as well as a few of his more recent music videos. Most important, however, is the sense of both protagonists being old or young beyond their years: whereas the (adult) Stéphane of The Science of Sleep can be childish to the point of irritation, the (pre-teenage) Stephane of La Lettre acts with a sad solemnity. Cross the two, and you must get Gondry’s picture of himself.

Thus we may be driven to a kind of struggle within ourselves, when we are confronted with Gondry’s work, because what we see are protagonists perpetually stuck at this crossroads, forever giving in to the dreams and desires by which we were all visited ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or however-many years ago—and yet what we want to see is someone more like ourselves, someone capable of negotiating this split, between irrational youth and stolid old age, with easy finesse. This is, I’d argue, the sort of capability we constantly desire of ourselves, but of which we forever fall short.

It isn’t a kind of Peter Pan complex that Gondry seems steeped in; it’s not, I think, that he never wants to grow old. Rather, it’s that he acknowledges an uncomfortable truth about the divide between childhood and adulthood: it is a subtle divide, and many of us cross over without realizing it, and many of us will transmit impulses from the one to the other. Simply and reductively put: we are children at heart. But few of us are willing to accept that fact.

This, at least, is how I see the negative critical reaction to those films Gondry has both written and directed himself (such as The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind). Pundits were far more accommodating to what has been by far his deepest and best endeavor, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the screenplay for which Gondry shared credits with Pierre Bismuth and the ever-inscrutable Charlie Kaufman. (Curiously, on the other hand, Human Nature, which Gondry directed but Kaufman wrote, is by far the least successful and least mechanically interesting of Gondry’s feature-length films—which might well put the lie to the critical adage that Gondry directing others’ work is far more successful than Gondry directing his own—c.f. Lane again.)

  And what remains endearing, apart from the love story and the mind-flippery of the plot, from the broader rational questions of would we erase these painful experiences, would we be better off for forgetting, or is memory not a nastiness but a hazy gathering of our previous selves, is the visceral visual impact of the film. What do you remember most about Eternal Sunshine, if you’ve seen it? It’s the changing color of Clementine’s (Kate Winslet’s) hair, probably, how it is red, blue, orange, or green depending on the film’s internal timeframe. That is a detail any one of the three writers—Gondry, Bismuth, Kaufman—might have inserted, but it is a detail Gondry himself, as director, realized fully. It seems small, and so do many of the more memorable parts of the film, but when we allow the ideas to coalesce they take on the sort of gravitas we think of as adult. Here was a failed love, here they broke up because they could not stand each other, or because they could not envision one another as good parents, or for a whole host of other reasons.

Most of us have experienced these broader problems personally, or we think about them on a daily basis, when we make decisions about those with whom we decide to spend the rest of our lives. These problems are at once a common denominator and something intensely private; everyone who is miserable is miserable in his own way. But what translates such apparently intimate problems into universal (i.e., commercial) appeal? Minor details—when Joel (Jim Carrey) imagines himself hiding beneath a table as a young child, when Clementine changes her hair color, when the two lovers find themselves at last in a crumbling house and she whispers to him Go to Montauk—force us to experience our own struggles through the eyes of another. In the hands of a capable guide such a translation reveals both the universality of our problems and questions and the importance of our own specific struggles. What we remember about these films, and Eternal Sunshine in particular, is that Gondry has worked over our own impulses and desires into examples specific enough to catch us and stick to us, but broad enough to cause us to think of those reasons we ourselves are, or have been, in love.

Yet things don’t necessarily end happily in Gondry’s world. This may be a function of the sort of story Gondry elects to tell, but it may equally have to do with the consequence of a life lived mostly in poring over the imagined glories of the past: in so doing, you sacrifice both present and future. In the case of each feature film, the intense desire to remain in the liminal space—between childhood and adulthood, between dream and reality, between memory and the present—eventually undermines itself. The love-square falls apart in Human Nature, defeating the adamant and idealistic desires of the jailed protagonist; Stéphane must leave Paris and Stéphanie at the end of The Science of Sleep; Joel and Clementine play in the snow in continual loops in Eternal Sunshine, with the implication being that they are forever doomed to meet, fall in love, and forget one another.

It would in fact be irresponsible—both of Be Kind Rewind to modern society’s sentimentality and of Gondry to his own aesthetic—to suggest that the video exercises in the absurdity of imagination could produce lasting effects. Were the efforts of Jerry and Mike to recreate and reinvent their films actually to ward off the destruction of an idyllic small-town video store, Be Kind Rewind would be at best hopelessly naive and at worst utterly wrong about art’s transformative capacity. This would be quite a depressing conclusion. Yet I think the moral here is that though shouting into the void may only ever be an exercise in self-defeat, the willingness to shout is what counts in the long run. We ought to get caught up in the doing of the thing, its texture, the richness of the event, the joy we can take in injecting ourselves into what it is we love, rather than in the concern that we see some real lasting impact. And that is what we would like our artists to do, right? As a king of such shreds and patches of human desire, Gondry would surely agree.

Lianne Habinek is a Phd candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.