Filmmaker Michel Gondry turns from the playful semi-surrealism of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and The Science Of Sleep to the personal story of a beloved family member in this documentary. Suzette Gondry is Michel's aunt and a retired schoolteacher; she educated children in rural communities in France from 1952 to 1986. While Suzette was committed to the education of all her students, she was a particularly close with one in particular -- her son, Jean-Yves, with whom she's had a loving but sometimes combative relationship. Michel accompanies Suzette on a journey in which she visits the many schools where she taught -- or the sites where those schools once stood -- and speaks of her experiences. She also meets some of her former students, and it's clear they recall Suzette as a woman with a kind heart but a strong will, and her determination earned her the enmity of a few of her charges.
The Thorn in the Heart is the most highly personal film yet from a director known for making films that show quirky human connection (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Flight of the Conchords). In this documentary, Michel Gondry has taken as subject matter his stalwart aunt Suzette, who confidently describes to the camera her historic teaching career in the French countryside. Suzette Gondry's tale is intriguing, as the director follows her from town to town to revisit decrepit schoolhouses, now overgrown with vines. She reunites with ex-students, some of them Harkis, Algerian soldiers who braved their War for Independence then settled in the region where Suzette settled. (There is also an excellent extra feature, "A Brief History of the Harkis," that furthers their roles in the film.) Starting in the 1950s, Gondry chronicles, year by year through vintage Super 8 film mixed in with new interviews of his elderly aunt, what adult life was like in tiny schoolhouses, and more profoundly, what strain this rural lifestyle placed upon relationships with her sawmill-employed husband, Jean-Guy, and her son, Jean-Yves. From here, the film takes a home-movie approach. When Gondry exposes his inner familial conflicts, one feels like a spy. Jean-Yves, a righteous model-train builder whose trains demarcate regional scene splits throughout, is obviously much more private than his mother, thereby adding to the film's overall eavesdropping sensibility. That said, while the subject matter is at times awkwardly private, the film's execution employs the viewer-friendly touches we know and love from Gondry. Animations made by Valerie Pirson, also explored further in the extra feature "Stop Motion Animation by Valerie Pirson," and a cool school-kid sequence soundtracked by Charlotte Gainsbourg renegotiate the film for a wider audience. While The Thorn in the Heart is too personal to be relevant in mainstream theaters, it gracefully illustrates Gondry's love of cinematic experimentation. --Trinie Dalton