Construction Time Again
By Ashley Clark
Microbe and Gasoline
Dir. Michel Gondry, France, Screen Media
In the films of Michel Gondry, characters often attempt to right apparent wrongs or circumvent impending melancholy by embarking on risky creative endeavors. In the Charlie Kaufman–penned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), the central couple takes the bold step of erasing their soured memories of one another via newfangled technology so that they might start afresh with open hearts and minds. The protagonist of his The Science of Sleep (2006) is a wayward dreamer who combats the drabness of his reality by inventing funny, fanciful contraptions like the “One Second” Time Machine, which allows the user to endlessly replay a fleeting instant of bliss (an “amazing scientific breakthrough!”, according to his putative paramour). In Be Kind, Rewind (2008), a pair of bumbling VHS store clerks accidentally wipe all of their stock and respond by inventing a new art form, “Sweding”: the acting out of microbudget, shabbily set-designed versions of the lost films. Meanwhile Gondry’s last film, Mood Indigo (2013), adapted from a story by Boris Vian, charted the travails of yet another eccentric inventor type on his quest to conjure an imaginative cure for his ailing girlfriend.
In each of these films, Gondry’s accent on creativity as a source of spiritual and physical liberation is complemented to various degrees by his own idiosyncratic, DIY aesthetic, where charmingly rickety special effects frequently blend seamlessly with his cunning manipulation of mise-en-scène. His approach, which often bears a distinctly childlike quality, has led to accusations of overbearing tweeness from some critics. While there’s a hint of truth to this, I’d argue that the rigorous constancy of Gondry vision across a diverse body of work is more worthy of appraisal. His auteurist imperatives—the primacy of painstaking craftsmanship, labors of love in an era of instant gratification—even extend to his nonfiction work: consider the intricate animation illuminating his Noam Chomsky doc Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (2013) or the director’s personal detours in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2005). Although this latter, exuberant film largely focuses on the attempts of the eponymous comedian to organize an all-star concert, its loveliest scene finds a wonderstruck Gondry luxuriating in the company of a pair of elderly Brooklyn oddballs who’ve crowded their cramped loft-cum-grotto with bric-a-brac, in the process creating their own little world.
The core Gondrian theme of creative escape from deep-set melancholy reappears in his latest feature, Microbe and Gasoline, a sweet and funny, but ultimately downbeat road movie. Ange Dargent plays Daniel, also known as Microbe—an introspective fourteen-year-old whose moniker refers to his diminutive stature. His size is the source of much of his anxiety; he’s worried that girls consider him too tiny to date. Microbe lives in a comfortable Versailles condo with his parents and two older brothers, but it’s clear that all is not well. His mother (Audrey Tautou, in a performance of startling fragility) is a depressive, spectral presence fond of dispensing existential aphorisms (“the body is just a vessel that we cast off”), while his father is barely glimpsed at all. An early scene in which Microbe, struggling to sleep in the vivid blue light of dawn, silently listens to his parents separately departing the house for work, suggests with great economy the absence of guiding figures in his life. At school, Microbe is the archetypal arty daydreamer (Gondry, a Versailles native, has clearly based the character on himself). Rather than concentrate in class, he busies himself with sketching the back of the head of the girl he adores. His art at home is of a rather different stripe: he draws his own lavishly (and hilariously) intricate pornography and masturbates to it without the desired end result, much to his chagrin—not since Happiness have the ejaculatory woes of an adolescent boy been tapped for such tragicomic effect.
Microbe’s sterile universe is given a much-needed energy boost by the arrival, late in the semester, of a new student: the fresh-faced, philosophy-spouting extrovert Theo (a winningly gauche Théophile Baquet). Thanks to his penchant for buzzing around town—and the school grounds—on a tooled-up motor scooter, Theo is soon given the name Gasoline by his peers. He too has troubles at home. His father is a sybaritic, foul-tempered artist, while his morbidly obese mother is severely unwell. United by their creative temperaments and a distaste for their peers’ intellectual mediocrity, the boys strike up a friendship, the depth and immediacy of which is captured adroitly by Gondry. There’s a gorgeous scene, shot in a hazy half-light, where Microbe and his brother play a silent, ball-less game of imaginary soccer while Gasoline circles them, providing crowd noise from the effects box rigged to his bike (it’s like a lower-stakes version of a similar moment in Abderrahmane Sissako’s wrenching Timbuktu). This prefigures a later sequence set in a gallery where precisely no one has showed up for the opening of Microbe’s art exhibition. When he arrives, Gasoline lifts Microbe out of the doldrums by pretending that the place is full, and swanning about like a wine-soaked aesthete. It’s a funny scene, for sure, but it’s also a poignant depiction of warmth and generosity cloaked in the guise of goofiness.
The gently wending narrative kicks into gear once the boys decide to abandon their families for a summer road trip. To facilitate the journey they build a bizarre, flat little car from spare parts and bits of wooden cupboard, but they can’t get it licensed by the DMV. So, in a classically Gondrian flourish of inspiration, they turn it into a portable, fully furnished motor home, replete with a wooden latch that drops down to disguise the wheels whenever the vehicle comes under suspicion. It fools a policeman, one of the film’s many vaguely absurd adult figures, who beams gormlessly for a selfie in front of the stationary unit. This house/car—a tiny, wobbly, and genuinely ridiculous contraption—is the film’s comedic trump card: its presence simply never stops being hysterically funny.
On the road, the boys face a panoply of strange characters and situations—including a brief stay at the house of a suspiciously kindly dentist, and a literally hair-raising trip to a hairdressing salon which also doubles as a brothel—but rarely do proceedings waver into outright wackiness. This is largely down to the consistency and chemistry of the young actors, and Gondry’s masterful control of the tone, which is bracingly unsentimental. For example, Gondry seldom cuts back to the boys’ families once they are on the road: it’s not that Microbe and Gasoline don’t care about them, or vice versa; rather Gondry wants the viewer to be wholly in sync with the pair’s burning desire to escape. They’re not looking back, so why should the film?
The film is set in the present day, but Gondry cleverly conjures a wistful, timeless atmosphere by deliberately stripping the frame of contemporary signifiers. With his plastic jacket, bright blue tracksuit bottoms, and lustrous bouffant, Gasoline looks as though he might have wandered in from any number of French films from the early 1980s. Microbe, meanwhile, pointedly doesn’t have an email account, and shortly after his brother kindly gives him a cellphone for GPS purposes, he accidentally drops it into an outdoor hole that he’s dug for the purpose of defecation. (Gondry is too sweet-natured for outright vulgarity, but this seems to me a fairly clear subtextual indicator of his preference for old-school analogue life.) As Microbe and Gasoline proceeds, and the boys’ friendship is tested by a variety of factors, the film gathers a stark emotional force that has eluded Gondry since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It also boasts one of his most purely inspired moments as a filmmaker:a haunting final shot so breathtakingly brusque that it seems designed to squash those accusations of tweeness forever.