During the fifteen years that I spent at MIT, I never grew tired of encountering the frighteningly brilliant people who consistently walked through the doors of 77 Massachusetts Avenue. Some eighty five Nobel Prize winners have either taught or matriculated there, along with a few Fields Medal Winners too. On a whim during one spring day, I was taken to an informal lecture by Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, who founded the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and invented this thing called the World Wide Web. Even the quiet physics professor who had the office two doors down from mine, Thomas Greytak, discovered absolute zero, which I am told is a pretty important thing.
One usually doesn’t think about the arts and MIT in tandem, but Pulitzer award winning author Junot Diaz is on the faculty there, as is legendary performance artist Joan Jonas. Over the years, everyone from jazz great Max Roach to avant-garde composer John Zorn were once artists in residence, as was George Takei, but given the geek culture at the school, this should be less of a surprise. Early in 2005, even given the aforementioned talent who have come to MIT, I was still stunned to hear that director Michel Gondry would be giving a lecture at the Institute aptly titled, “Exploring The Mind Of Michel Gondry.” The event had the director of the then recently Academy Award honored film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, discuss his creative process, which at times seemed absolutely maniacal, especially when viewing pieces like his video for The White Stripes song, “Fell In Love With A Girl,” which is comprised of two dazzling minutes of collages made out of Lego blocks constructed by Gondry, his son, and fifteen animators.
It might sound cute, but that level of painstaking work took months to accomplish as did most of the effects of Eternal Sunshine, which set a visual standard for Gondry’s work for years to come, good, bad, or otherwise.
I make that statement above because some of the director’s films made after Eternal Sunshine, like The Science Of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, work very well in the Gondry creative universe, meaning that his notoriously crafty inventions supported the narrative and character development more than they distracted you.
Unfortunately the director’s 2013 film, Mood Indigo, was an example of where Gondry’s idiosyncratic visual style, that included an endless morass of all-too-adorable creations, stifled any emotional content of the film and overshadowed the performance of the two leads, Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris. Regardless of the failure of Mood Indigo and The Green Hornet, I still remain a loyal Michel Gondry fan, which I credit to the epic triumph that is Eternal Sunshine and his many appearances at MIT. I write “many” because for years after that aforementioned lecture in 2005, Gondry would visit the school with each of new films and consistently engage the tech savvy audience in a more than the average film festival question and answer session. Gondry’s subsequent status as an Artist in Residence at MIT eventually lead to his creation of the successful 2013 documentary about Professor Noam Chomsky, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, and for me, Michel’s time there and his many discussions about narrative construction revealed his depth and ability to make a film that could be centered on characters and be emotionally affecting without all of his signature bells and whistles. Such is the case with his newest film, Microbe and Gasoline.
Set in Gondry’s birthplace of Versailles, an affluent Parisian suburb, Microbe and Gasoline is a stripped down (for Gondry) comedic road film centered on two teen misfits who become friends. Daniel (Ange Dargent) is fourteen and quite small for his age, earning him the nickname, “Microbe,” at school. Adding to Daniel’s misfit status is his long hair and androgynous appearance, which compels him to question his own masculinity. In fact, Microbe seems so out of sync that he cannot embrace modern technology or any aspect of popular culture, or any previous one for that matter, and his family further exemplifies his timeless status. Microbe’s older brother is knee deep in the 77 punk culture, complete with spiked hair, spiked jacket, and an array of Manic Panic suburban-style spiked up punk friends. Microbe’s younger brother is the good boy/athlete type who is just like any boy of his age at this time, which leaves Microbe as the odd man out again. Even Microbe’s progressive-styled mother (Audrey Tautou) is an academic of the classic self-help 1970s kind who tries to use an intellectual dialog to suss out her son’s woes, but again, this (and a bit of an Oedipal complex) only creates more internal doubt for the boy. There is a dad in this home, but he, like I am sure of most fathers who commute to Paris every day for work, has little time to spend with his family.
One day, when all looks pretty grim, a new student joins his class, Théo (Théophile Baquet), a faux leather jacket clad grease monkey who smells of motor oil, which doesn’t endear him to his classmates either as they hang on him the moniker of, “Gasoline,” but unlike Microbe, Théo doesn’t seem to mind. We’ll soon see Gasoline’s home, which unlike the upper middle class world of Microbe, is small, dirty, and above a rundown junk store/antique shop, which is operated by his working class parents who are in perpetual arguing mode. Gasoline and Microbe will soon become good friends, and they will block out the negative static from all around them by building a car of sorts that is disguised as a cottage to fool the police (the only truly Gondry-esque invention in the film) using the scrap metal found at a junkyard in the hopes of fleeing Versailles in the summer to take a road trip through the Burgundy countryside with the goal of returning to the summer camp where Gasoline most likely had his only true moments of joy as a child.
What follows in Microbe and Gasoline isn’t overwhelmingly sweet as Gondry leaves most of the gadgetry behind to concentrate on the boys’ budding friendship through the adventures that they experience together. Those of you who had issues with the glaring adorableness exhibited in the form of small creatures and appliances in Mood Indigo will be pleased that cuteness, for the most part, is suppressed throughout the film for a chance to delve deeper into the psyche of the film’s amiable protagonists, who are played with a naturalistic perfection by Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet.
As with most coming of age films, there is an awakening of sexuality and the resulting conflict that arises when one questions his own manhood in the face of what seems like an endless childhood, but what is surprising is the political inference that has been infused into the narrative of Microbe and Gasoline.
Perhaps this is an unconscious decision that manifested from Gondry’s previous interactions with Chomsky (see the interview that Lily and I conducted with Gondry below) to impart a political and social agenda into the film, which is evidenced through the appearances of the marginalized immigrant groups that Microbe and Gasoline encounter to seemingly distinguish their adolescent angst from the plight of those who are not fortunate enough to live peacefully in a Parisian suburb.
This is not to suggest that the heaviness that may or may not be contained in a political subtext overwhelms the joyful and humorous elements of Microbe and Gasoline, a light hearted comedy that is as well balanced as Gondry has done in many years. The film’s narrative plays out in an almost shockingly traditional fashion, but that allows you to concentrate on two interesting young friends who just seem a bit confused and aren’t hiding that fact, except, of course, when they are hiding together in a tiny moving house by the side of the road.
Shortly after screening the film, my wife Lily and I spoke with Michel Gondry about Microbe and Gasoline (spoiler alert) as well as his time as an Artist in Residence at MIT.
Lily Fierro: Every character in Microbe and Gasoline feels paradoxically fixed to a specific point and time and aloof in that time as well because they neither fit in the present nor the past. Daniel is almost like a 19th century romantic; his brother is a circa-1977 punk, and his mother is almost like a self-help practitioner of the 1970s. How much are the characters’ inability to fit into the past or present reflective of the setting of your birthplace of Versailles, a city that has a rich history but is now seen as a fashionable suburb of Paris?
Michel Gondry: Well, my experience with Versailles, which I feel is close to the truth, is that it is a countryside city that is close to Paris, but it is a place that has its own identity. Plus, there is a military base there, so a lot of people come from military families, and it is very right wing, so it is very conservative, but there still are many people who are misfits, and that was the case with my own family when I was growing up in Versailles. And, that is why the main characters, Theo and Daniel, don’t find their place in this world.
Generoso Fierro: Following up on Lily’s question, I find Theo’s look to be the most curious. As a teen in the 1980s myself, I see the Michael Jackson jacket and even a haircut that is similar to Jackson’s. In addition, with Theo’s 80s look, I think of the youth cinema in the States, films like Valley Girl and The Breakfast Club, where class conflict in suburban communities is paramount to the story. I might be reaching with this one Michel, but is Theo’s character a statement about the clarity of class that existed three decades ago that is less overt now?
I think it is not consciously reflecting the 1980s. The story behind it is that he is wearing the jacket of his older brother because he doesn’t want to reflect any specific fashion. And, in regards to his hair, for inspiration, I was thinking of a friend of mine whose hair was very thick, and he couldn’t do anything with it, not even comb it; therefore he never gave a damn about the way it looked. It didn’t even occur to me, the Michael Jackson reference that is, when we found that racer jacket. When we put the jacket on Theo, he just looked so timeless. Daniel and Theo have no desire to mix with the current generation; they don’t have smart phones or listen to popular music, so we felt that the looks that we created for them clearly distinguished them from any of their peers.
LF: Microbe and Gasoline is a film about the many meanings of being an outsider. Theo and Daniel are outsiders in their timeless demeanors, thoughts, and appearances, and on their travels, they see other groups of people who fit far outside of the world of Versailles. First, Daniel foolishly enters a brothel run by Korean immigrants, and later the brothel’s muscle is seen playing American football, which shows a clear influence of Western culture. The boys then encounter a Roma community that is met with violence, prompting a response from Daniel about how the genocide of the Romani people in World War II continues in the present day with similar fascist tactics. Are these scenes included to show the juxtaposition between two communities, one that tries to assimilate and one that does not, and their consequent disenfranchisement against the level of disenfranchisement that Daniel and Theo feel?
Well, there is not a conscious political message in the moments with the Korean brothel and the football players who guard it. In fact, the brothel and the football team are from a dream that I once had, and I tried to shoot the scenes as close to my dream as possible. In the two times that Daniel runs into the Korean football team, those men represent the virility and qualities that Daniel is lacking, and that is all I wanted to capture in his encounters with the team. As for the Roma community, that might be the only statement that I make in regards to the outside world in the film. The idea is that no one likes the Romani because they take money from the state, but yet they live in very difficult conditions with authorities who will beat them up no matter where they go. So, when Daniel and Theo’s car-house, which represents their outsider status, looks like one of the Roma homes, they are treated in the same way.
GF: Michel, you and I once met at one of your many appearances at MIT. Your visits to the institute meant a great deal to myself and Lily as well as the entire MIT community. I’ve always wondered besides, of course, your interest in Noam Chomsky and his work as to why you showed your films at MIT and eventually became an Artist in Residence there of all places?
I have a great interest in science, but unfortunately, I have a terrible memory, so I couldn’t really move forward into that discipline, but I think it is one of the most creative ways to see the world. To me, science is the only way to explore the world objectively, and I was always captivated by that. So, when I was asked to be an Artist in Residence at MIT, I was extremely flattered and enthusiastic to meet all of these creative and scientific people, and I felt really at home there. The aspect of the work at MIT that appeals to me is that a project doesn’t necessarily have to lead to something. The research or the advancement or the conclusion of a project can come from an unexpected source, and I think that is how science moves forward, by not necessarily finding what you are looking for but what you might accidentally find along the way. I think that most of the great discoveries happen like that.