In Michel Gondry’s new film, Microbe and Gasoline, Daniel (Ange Dargent) and Théo (Théophile Baquet) are a pair of misfit eighth graders living in Versailles, struggling to figure out how they fit into the world around them. For Gondry, that means giving each of them a mutual sense of innovation that’s prompted by an interest in mechanical practice and then fueled by childish imagination. As the boys build a house-car in order to travel France, Gondry’s specific cinematic vision emerges as a rejoinder to art that fetishizes realism at the expense of compassion and to whimsical works that shun reality. Microbe and Gasoline is based on the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up in Versailles and it’s a natural extension from his preceding oeuvre, which features works that home in on the ways characters encounter memories of either their own past (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or culture (Be Kind Rewind), coupled with the director’s own tender perceptions about youth. Gondry’s films walk a singular, difficult tightrope between a realm of outright magical realism on one side, and indulging naïve perceptions of hardship on the other. So far, he’s yet to fall off.
I spoke with Gondry about his interest in making a film based upon his youth, what the act of friendship means to his filmmaking, and why putting a gun in a scene doesn’t automatically make it more interesting.
Did the experience of making The We and the I help prompt your interest in a film with autobiographical details from your own adolescence or was the process more related to something else?
The We and the I was more an observation of lived experience. It was lived in a way that I was a passenger once, like 30 years ago. I was on a bus in Paris and a class of pupils jumped on the bus all at once and it was chaos. I couldn’t even read my book, it was so loud. So instead of trying to read my book I listened to what was said, and the conversation was very aggressive, shallow, and not nice. You had bullies who were shaking the others and so on. But as time passed, the kids came out gradually from the bus, and the power from the conversation shifted so that when there were only two, the conversation became very personal. So I had the shape of a story in mind. It was a sort of anthropology or social observation. But when I did Microbe and Gasoline, it was more turning back to myself and looking back, remembering elements in my life that I experienced when I was 14.
Memory has always been there in your work, as a theme. It’s an obvious component of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it’s also in Be Kind Rewind, where Jerry and Mike are attempting to revive the video store by using their memory of films to make new ones. What was it that made you want to investigate your own memories for this film?
I visit my memories a lot, simply because I’m a very nostalgic person. I just feel certain moments will never occur again. And maybe I realize I didn’t enjoy this particular moment enough. I think about it, and while I’m thinking about it I forget to live in the present. So it’s a vicious cycle. I decided to talk about my adolescence for some simple reasons. If I talk about my recent past, I’m a director. So, my background would be directing and it’s hard for me to create from scratch a time or a situation. I have to go back before I was a director and that’s why I landed at this age of mine.
Did you have a clear and precise sense of what shape the narrative would take early on or was there a process of discovery that went beyond your initial conceptions?
It was both. I think one of the main elements I wanted to explore was why I was always friends with the most rejected kid in the class, year after year. Nobody would want to be close to them, but I was close to them because they seemed to me much more interesting. Not by pity or by wanting to find out what was going on, it was just that they had more interesting stories to tell and stronger experiences. I wanted to explore that, and little by little of putting together memories I started to write the story. And then I remembered this ambition or fantasy we had to construct a car from scratch and go into the mountains for the holidays.
Though the film is set in 2014, there’s a noticeable lack of electronic devices or new media in it. In fact, you come up with a hilarious way for the boys to lose their only cell phone, so that the film could conceivably be taking place at a time before such technologies. Why did you decide to make a film set in the present that would be imbued with your memories of the past?
There are two reasons. One is these are memories way before these technologies, so I had no memories of those times related to these technologies. So it would have been forced on them. The other part, which is more true, is that my friends and I were very reluctant to be part of what was average or common at this age. We didn’t want to go to commercial movies, so if there had been iPhones and stuff, we would have refused to use them. In fact, I still don’t have an iPhone.
Was there ever a point where you contemplated setting the film in the past?
Well, it’s much more expensive when you do it in the past, for one thing, and I didn’t have a big budget. But I am always suspicious about films from the present set in the ’70s, because everybody in every department—costumes, the art direction, the actors, the cinematography—is trying very hard to represent this period in their own way, and then it looks like a play or something. I think it would distract you from watching the characters to recreate that world of the ’70s.
Talk about the roles played by adults in the film. In all cases, they seem either over-protective or distant, which prompts the need to escape for the two boys. Do you have a personal distrust of authority figures that stems from your own adolescence or are you portraying these adults specifically as they’re seen by Daniel and Theo?
Daniel is mostly based on me, so his parents are based on mine. But I think both families are dysfunctional, and because I didn’t have much time to show the families of both characters, I tried to pick the moment that makes you understand how the personality of the parents shaped the kids. Daniel is insecure because his mom is insecure, and Theo acts like he’s very strong, but actually he’s been very brought down by his father and mother. So that happens a lot of time. You idolize a friend and you visit him in his environment and you realize his environment is very harsh, though it’s not miserable. It’s always like a shock and you have to accept it. And I tried to show that in a minimum amount of time.
This is one of few serious films about adolescence in recent years that I can think of where there isn’t either an ironic distance placed between the narrative and the characters or an effort to cast the characters into really dangerous or violent situations. It seems very fashionable now to depict one’s teenage years as such an awful time, whereas this film depicts it as a very loving and edifying time.
Yeah, I really agree with that. And I’ve been thinking of it when I see movies that are often shown at festivals where there needs to be an amount of danger hovering above the kids. I was really aware of that when I shot the film. When the characters are talking, it’s kind of dreamy and a bit realistic, but there isn’t somebody that’s going to die in the story. I think it’s important for me that it’s a story about two adolescents, but no one is really dying around them because you don’t really experience that most of the time. Theo’s mother is dying actually, but not through violence. It’s like when you put a gun in a scene, right away you have a sense of drama or suspense, because you don’t know if the guy is going to use the gun or if someone is going to die, and so you’re very anxious. But I think it’s sort of an easy way to bring the audience to a dramatic place. I wanted to do a film without any of that, basically. The gun has become a stereotype in film language. I wanted to show and talk about more personal things.
Like memory, different kinds of friendship crop up frequently in your films. While watching this, I was consistently reminded of Be Kind Rewind, because there’s a sense in both films that mutual respect among friends has the potential to yield something innovative. Here, at least in dramatic terms, it’s the house-car. Do you have any philosophical perceptions about the nature of friendship that keeps driving you back to these kinds of narratives?
It’s complicated to answer, because to figure out the elements of a friendship is to understand a mix of time spent together, experience, and affinities. If I think of Microbe and Gasoline, what makes them stick to each other is that they make the other a dreamer. So Theo sparks Daniel’s imagination because he can make things that work out of nothing. And Daniel gets Theo’s admiration because he’s an artist and creative. But they believe in each other when no one else does. So those are elements that put them together, but I wouldn’t apply that to all types of friendship in the world.
Is nostalgia finally about something bigger than yourself, so that it can even be an aesthetic mode that propels you to see the world in a particular way?
I don’t see nostalgia as an aesthetic so much. I guess it’s a way to recreate a moment that you miss, the idea that there is this faint image in your brain and you bring it back to life. And then it’s confusing, because you can’t remember the difference between the recreation of the memory and the memory itself. It’s like you’re illustrating a dream with cinema. Nostalgia is something that you have within you and most people don’t know about it and then you present it to them. It’s a great luck you have when you make films.