Quirky French director Michel Gondry largely eschews his usual clever camera tricks and crafty artificiality in the documentary The Thorn In The Heart. The movie features a few Gondry-esque touches—toy trains to illustrate a change of location, a mix of different types of film and video, “behind the scenes” footage immediately prior to an interview, and so on—but for the most part, Gondry keeps the movie simple and on-task. The Thorn In The Heart is intended to document the life of Gondry’s aged aunt Suzette, and that’s exactly what it does.
Why Suzette Gondry? From an opening scene in which she holds a family gathering rapt with an anecdote about her late husband, it’s clear that Suzette’s been a beloved, formidable figure in the Gondry family for as long as her nephew has been alive. As a young woman, she moved to the French countryside to teach in a small schoolhouse—often helping the Algerian kids that other teachers ignored in the wake of the war of independence—and there she and her blue-collar husband raised a son, Jean-Yves, who struggled with how to please his mother and father while hiding his homosexuality. Theirs is not that uncommon a story, but Gondry is nonetheless fascinated by it, and seems determined to leverage his family ties and his professional credentials to get to the bottom of how his aunt and cousin feel about each other.
Gondry doesn’t always maintain focus. The Thorn In The Heart breaks for a tongue-in-cheek recreation of a mundane family crisis, and for a whimsical (but pointless) scene where Gondry provides a class of elementary school kids with “invisibility costumes.” Even Suzette’s opening story is more “you had to be there” than riotously funny. The Thorn In The Heart’s home-movie-style images are frequently lovely and the film has flashes of poignancy, but Gondry never fully gets across why the specifics of this family history should interest anyone outside his circle. He succeeds best when he goes broader, and deals with the common tension between parents and their children, as opposed to Suzette and Jean-Yves’ mutual disappointment. If he’d pulled back more, Gondry might’ve seen the real story here: how maternal figures often look better to people who don’t actually have them for a mother.