From his innovative music video work for artists like Björk, Daft Punk, and the White Stripes to feature films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, French director Michel Gondry has consistently demonstrated a knack for dreamlike visuals and poetic sentimentality, and he’s earned quite a fanbase in the process. In 2004, Gondry took home an Oscar for his Eternal Sunshine screenplay, and the film remains one of the most beloved of its decade.
His latest effort is Microbe and Gasoline, a small coming-of-age film partly based on his own adolescent experiences that centers on a young friendship between two outcast boys and incorporates touches of Gondry’s trademark DIY aesthetic. He was kind enough to speak with RT about his new movie, why surrealism appeals to him, and what films inspired him to become a director. Read on for Michel Gondry’s Five Favorite Films.
L’Atalante from Jean Vigo. I discovered this film when I started to have growing interest in movies. That movie is from the 1930s. It was shot with very little money, and the director was sick. I mean, it’s pure poetry. This movie, it’s a very simple story, and you have Michel Simon, who plays an amazing character. It’s just a great combination of a vision that’s close to surrealism and a Grecian film look. It’s extremely touching.
Surrealism seems to be a hallmark of your films. What is it about it that appeals to you?
Well, it’s sort of a freedom of expression. You don’t have to justify your choice, like you write an idea, and you shoot the idea the way it comes to you. So it reflects what’s in your head without the filter of intellectualization. It takes you to the most unexpected places.
I would say Groundhog Day. It’s an amazing concept, but that can apply to everyday life, on the river of life. Many times, you say, you wake up and you have the same day. It’s a great concept that leads to a lot of sentiment and humor. And of course, Bill Murray is genius.
I would say Kes by Ken Loach. It’s a story about a 12-year-old kid in the middle of England in a very poor area. He finds a kestrel – it’s like a small eagle – and tries to tame it. He goes to the library and steals a book about how to tame and educate a kestrel. And there is this scene – he’s always dismissed in class; he has nothing to say – and one time the teacher asks each pupil to tell a personal story. Every pupil has something really flat to say, and suddenly he stands up and he tells his story about his kestrel, and he becomes animated and he’s completely inspired, to the point that his teacher comes to see his bird.
I would say The Gold Rush. I mean, I pick this one, but I love all the body of work of Chaplin. He takes some very dramatic moments or situations and he finds hilarious elements in it. And then, the choreography of the scenes is just amazing all the time. And I think the way he thinks influenced me. Not saying that I am Charlie Chaplin, but I think it was so inspiring – I watched all his films when I was very young, and I think it shaped my vision of film.
I’m going to say My Little Loves by Jean Eustache. It’s not an inspiration, but I thought of it when I shot Microbe and Gasoline. It’s the story of a 12-year-old kid who was raised by his grandmother, and then his mother takes him back, and she really doesn’t like him. His experiences in school – he’s trying to find a girlfriend. It’s shot in a very simple and honest way. And this kid was my age, so when I see him in the film in that location, it really could have been me. Jean Eustache was one of the greatest filmmakers in France, but he made maybe three or four movies.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: Much of Microbe and Gasoline is taken from your own life experiences. You’ve always made films that felt personal, but what prompted you to make such an autobiographical movie now?
Michel Gondry: Well, I think that The Science of Sleep is as personal, but it was a present-time story that I was depicting. This one is from the past, from when I was 14. I always look for something to play when I do a movie, and sometimes it’s just because I want to do a movie and I’m looking for a subject. Also, if I do it about myself, it’s going to be easier, because I know what I’m talking about. If I talk about the present time, it’s just going to be about a director. So I go further in the past, and I end up looking at my adolescence.
I explore details — there is some nostalgia, there is some trying to understand how I became who I am. Just to create an adventure that I wish I had done but I didn’t do. That’s one of the reasons to make a film, just to create a world in which you make things happen that would not happen in real life.
Rotten Tomatoes: There are few directors who are able to capture the visual language of dreams quite the way you do, and to bring those visuals into the real world so seamlessly. I know that comes with a lot of experimentation, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried to bring something you had in mind to life, and couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.
MG: Well, for instance, in The Science of Sleep, I didn’t want to have this hand-made animated universe for the dreams. I wanted to make them really real, with a lot of complicated digital special effects, but we couldn’t afford it, so that’s why I switched to something more hand-made, which probably was better. But yes, there are things you cannot do for scenes from dreams.
Rotten Tomatoes: Speaking of dreams, do you — or did you ever — have recurring dreams?
MG: Yes, I have many. And, as well, I have locations in my dreams to which I return. I can remember maybe 10 or 20 locations even when I’m awake that really exist in my head when I dream. I keep going back to them. In Microbe and Gasoline, there is a dream near the end, when they take the plane and the plane flies backwards, going higher at the level of the houses, and that’s a dream I have all the time.