Michel Gondry is a director whose work has been characterized by its originality and personal vision. The likes of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep have marked him as a filmmaker with a distinct vision. Here he makes what must be his most personal film yet, as it is a documentary about his family. More precisely, it is about his aunt Suzette, a strong-willed, redoubtable matriarch who worked as a schoolteacher in some of the most remote regions of France. Gondry and crew follow Suzette as she revisits her former schools, working her way through the decades and chronicling her life, that of her family, and, along the way, that of France.
As personal and culturally specific as the movie is, I fear that it might not translate very well for a North American audience. Some minimal familiarity with the context might be necessary to really get into the movie. Granting that, the film, with its mixture of new footage, model train transitions, and super-8 family movies, is fascinating and moving.
The image quality is, as one would expect, dependent on the source material, some of which is, of course, quite rough. But the present-day footage looks terrific, with strong, natural colours and contrasts. Essentially, the transfer is faithful to the image of the print. And when all is said and done, this is a very handsome, indeed quite beautiful, documentary.
Sound design isn’t a feature one expects wonders from in a documentary, and so what we have here is something of a treat. The 5.1 surround is surprisingly effective. So when Suzette is wandering through the forest, the birds are singing away from all speakers, and we are right there with her. The music sounds very nice, too, and the recording of the voices is sharp.
A Brief History of the Harkis: (14:58) Some of Suzette’s students were the children of former Algerian soldiers who, having fought for the French during Algeria’s war of independence, found themselves exiled to France following defeat. This is a very helpful piece in setting the historical scene for the viewer.
Calendar Doodles: (1:38) A brief montage of school calendars and their layers of doodles.
Techno Suzette: (5:56) Unclear on the technology, Suzette once used a movie camera as if it were a still camera, and Gondry has set the resulting seizure-inducing footage to a pounding electro beat. Great fun.
Unused Animate Sequences: (1:51) These didn’t fit with the model train bits, and were taking out, but here they are in one convenient package.
Little Monsters: (2:03) A video done for the song by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Post-Screening Q&A: (11:39) Gondry speaks to the audience at the SXSW festival.
In Conversation: (23:48) A more extensive interview with Gondry, again at SXSW.
A lovely, touching film that eschews easy nostalgia and sentimentality for genuine emotion and truth.