Made with obvious affection and familial respect, Michel Gondry’s documentary The Thorn in the Heart traces the career of his septuagenarian aunt Suzette, a retired teacher who spent three decades working in eight schools across rural France. But the film’s dramatic meat—Suzette’s relationship with her gay son Jean-Yves, an emotionally fragile man in his 50s who dryly tells his mother she “didn’t exactly help” him grow into an autonomous, mature adult—frustratingly plays second fiddle to Auntie’s visits to the country villages where she taught. Former colleagues testify to Suzette’s “avant garde,” pioneering methods, but nephew Michel stints on the evidence save for footage of a field trip to Paris (by plane) and swimming classes at the municipal pool. Between interstitial shots of toy trains to mark each stop of her career, the nearly blind but animated widow is reunited with bygone pupils now in early-to-late middle age (including Algerian refugees who arrived in the French hinterlands in the early ’60s), and discovers her old schoolhouses converted to homes or reduced to rubble, but the result is a frequently mundane ramble that doesn’t often put its raison d’être on the screen.
To his credit, Gondry doesn’t let sympathy for his extended family impede him from scrutinizing their foibles. In solo interview sessions, Suzette confesses that she kept her husband’s death from her children for a day and a half, while Jean-Yves, who worked reluctantly under his father in a sawmill for 10 years, unable to break free, sums up the state of his feelings toward the man as “Okay, but guilty.” (The patriarch, burly and fun-loving in appearance, is present in the clips of family films woven throughout, many of them shot by Jean-Yves, who became the clan’s energetic Super 8 chronicler in his youth.)
The director’s trademark whimsy surfaces when he has aunt and cousin histrionically recreate a bathroom mishap (“The Drying Rack Tragedy”) for the camera, but sequences like Michel’s skateboarding teen son Paul recounting a year in New York living with Suzette come off like indulgent digressions from the charged yet underdeveloped relationship of the old woman and her sometimes accusatory, sometimes forgiving adult child. As internationally distributed home movies go, Thorn in the Heart is artful and sporadically ambitious, but it buries its mother-son dynamic in favor of Gondry’s preconceived game of biographical hopscotch.