At first glance, Michel Gondry was an unexpected entrant in the New York Film Festival. Unlike some of the preferred directors of the festival, who often appear in the main slate every few years, Gondry had never had a film appear there. Furthermore, while his early works were major causes of the critical elite, his more recent narrative films have been less warmly received. In addition, Microbe and Gasoline, his newest film, hadn’t premiered at any large festival (Cannes, Venice, or Toronto) before showing up in New York. Microbe and Gasoline is a return to form for the director and cements him as an undeniable cinematic auteur.
The story follows the friendship of young teenage characters Daniel and Théo. Daniel is a small and skinny social outcast who devotes much of his time to drawing. He is often called Microbe because of his runty stature. Théo is a new student at Daniel’s school and instantly projects an air of coolness because of his leather jacket and his disinterest in what the more popular kids think of him. Because he is constantly fixing his dad’s car and creating gadgets, Théo is known as Gasoline. The boys befriend each other and they begin spending much of their time together. Théo helps Daniel break out of his shell and eventually the two take a road trip across France. Hilarity quickly ensues as the road trip begins in a makeshift mini-RV vehicle. Both characters are played refreshingly by young, new actors, Ange Dargent as Daniel, and Théophile Baquet as Théo. Also, notably, in a small unexpected role is Audrey Tautou playing Daniel’s bookish and loving mother.
Successfully combining the coming-of-age and road-trip genres, the film relies heavily on the personal autobiographical screenplay written by Gondry, which imbues the story with much of its sincerity and tenderness. Daniel is slightly modeled after Gondry (which explains Daniel’s love of drawing and art) and Théo is based on a close friend of the director. Thematically, the film is a treatise on the loss of friendship, as Gondry and his friend have not talked to each other for many years, but in the film he can relive the moments of their youthful camaraderie.
Gondry’s status as an auteur may have been on shaky ground after he directed a wide variety of films that crossed various genres. His first two films (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) have been credited more as outright successes in authorship for their writer, Charlie Kaufman. His follow-up film The Science of Sleep seemed to be a continuation of Kaufman’s themes, while cementing Gondry’s visual style. A subsequent outing, however, was the big-budget comic book film The Green Hornet, followed by the low-budget, adolescent, New York-set The We and the I. He then returned to the whimsy presented in his early features with the highly uneven Mood Indigo. With some of his films not connecting thematically and perhaps stylistically, it was arguable that Gondry did not have one distinct style. But with Microbe and Gasoline he has successfully tied his entire filmography together.
Thematically, Gondry has always presented stories of social inequality. Whether it be Patricia Arquette’s overly hairy character in Human Nature, the unexpected heroes of The Green Hornet, the underappreciated and underprivileged youth of The We and the I, or the socially awkward denizens of Mood Indigo and The Science of Sleep, Gondry has always been interested in portraying the stories of outcasts. It isn’t really until Microbe and Gasoline that this connection becomes noticeable and apparent because of the social unpopularity of Théo and Daniel. He also sincerely and nicely connects the protagonists with other social groups that face discrimination in France: there’s a moment of critique of Roma racism, and there is the interesting facet that Théo’s family is of Russian origin while living in the former city of royalty, Versailles.
Furthermore, Microbe and Gasoline confirms Gondry’s visual style as a signature of his own. The film is a celebration of imagination, like his other works, and he often uses beautiful animations and visual props to enhance this aspect. Thankfully, unlike Mood Indigo, which contained an over-indulgence of visual whimsy, here Gondry restrains his style to the exact point where pleasure can best be reached. Also enhancing his style in Microbe and Gasoline are some fantastic backward shots which not only brighten the film but also strengthen the autobiographical aspect of returning to one’s adolescence.
With restrained stylistic flourishes and sincerity of plot, Michel Gondry has created his best work since his breakthrough, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unfortunately, the film skipped the major European festivals, and due to the financial failure of Mood Indigo, it may have a hard time gaining international and American distribution. Hopefully a good distributor will pick up the film for release, as it is quite a pleasure and a profound testament to adolescent freedom and friendship.