Academy Award–winning French filmmaker Michel Gondry turns back the hands of time and revisits a few of his forward-thinking films.
Nine years after its release, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004) is a certified modern classic. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s story, which centers on a former couple (played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) who attempt to erase each other from their memories using an experimental procedure, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and made Gondry, who until then was known for his music videos, a name-brand director.
“As soon as I read Charlie’s screenplay, I knew he’d done something really special. The most challenging thing we shot was when Jim comes back to see the doctor and stop the erasing process. We shot it all in one take and Jim was playing two parts of his character—one from his memory and one in the real world. He had to change costumes in the middle of the take many times. It was all choreographed, and he gave a very good performance. It was a Friday night and nobody thought we could make it, and when it finally happened, everybody behind the video monitor started cheering and applauding. It was only the second week of shooting, but I had my crew on my side after that. I finally felt like I knew what I was doing.”
Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), a shy dreamer, becomes infatuated with his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (2006), Gondry’s most personal film to date. Working from his own screenplay, the French director created ingenious dream sequences using household detritus—a Polaroid camera transforms into a time machine; a swath of cellophane turns into an ocean—and solidified his reputation as an auteur who can do a lot with very little.
“I use tons of digital technology in my films, but I like the idea that magic already exists in front of the camera. I use budget limitations to my advantage, and my technical limitations are part of the aesthetic—for example, when I used editing to make the time machine work. It’s something I developed when I started making music videos. When I imagine my effects, I imagine how I will do them, and I’m very optimistic, but of course there are times when I have to be realistic and give my project a haircut to make it more produce-able.”
With THE GREEN HORNET (2011), Gondry abandoned the handcrafted aesthetic that characterized his earlier, more cerebral work for the big-budget sheen required of a story about a billionaire playboy–turned–masked vigilante (Seth Rogen). Still, despite studio-inflicted prerequisites (bombastic car chases and a third-act blowout), Gondry managed to insert flashes of his own conceptual ingenuity throughout, such as 16 simultaneous split-screens and a POV-style camera technique dubbed Kato-Vision.
“I remember one of the first meetings I had with Sony executives. At one point, they looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Michel, you’re not going to do a grainy, handheld movie. You’re going to do something commercial.’ And I said yes, which felt so easy at the time. But then I actually had to keep my word. I always feel a level of incompetence—like I’m not going to finish the job, or like I have to pretend I know what I’m doing—but I always find a way to make it work. In the end, I think the movie could have had a little more edge, but I’m still happy I made it.”
If The Green Hornet forced Gondry to temper his artistic vision, then THE WE AND THE I (2013) is the director’s creative spirit unleashed. Set almost entirely on a South Bronx bus, this scrappy, vérité-style film chronicles the after-school dynamics of innercity teenagers (played mostly by non-professional actors) as they navigate social hierarchies and herd mentalities.
“The bus driver is actually an official MTA driver, and she did great as an actor. She picked the bus up every morning at 5 a.m., drove it to the Bronx, and brought it back at night. She was amazing. We planned a different loop for the bus each day, and each loop would last approximately 10 minutes, so we would see the same landscape and we could edit for continuity. We found the kids at this after-school program called The Point. We just called it The Bus Project and hired the first 40 kids who showed up. Some of them knew me from my videos, and it’s interesting to be a part of this video era, because it’s connected me to kids who otherwise would not know my work. It was really important that I keep my word to them and actually make this movie, because it wasn’t really financed at the beginning. We had no idea if we’d be able to find the money.
In MOOD INDIGO (2013), Gondry returns to his natural habitat: fantastical romances grounded in very real emotions. Based on the popular French novel, L’écume des jours, by Boris Vian, the film tells the story of Colin (Romain Duris), a man who must care for his new bride (Audrey Tautou) after flowers mysteriously begin to grow in her lungs.
“The movie was a big machine and came with a big crew. The book was written in the 1940s, but it’s set in a parallel world. I didn’t want to have this historical period as a marker, so I had to make it look different without being retro or typically scifi. I created a Paris that is sort of from the future, but not really. We had to design the cars to look half from the past and half from the future, and we modified some architecture. There are some science fiction elements at play, but I’ve done it in a low-key style. It’s a very important love story in France, and it’s basically about how people change less than objects. It’s a point of view I really like and one that’s influenced my directing.”