Michel Gondry is the multi-talented director behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the 1994 Levi drugstore ad which holds the record for the most awards for a TV commercial. Yet his latest film, Microbe et Gasoil displays none of his trademark whimsy and other worldliness and is a flat, drawn out hommage to his own childhood spent in the Parisian suburb of Versailles. Perhaps the autobiographical nature of the storyline put the brakes on his creative genius which often takes the audience on a surreal journey to the far flung corners of his imagination by pushing the limits of technology. After all this is the man who created the ‘bullet camera’ technique used to great effect by the Wachowski brothers in The Matrix. But without the punch provided by hi-tech, Microbe et Gasoil never really takes off and Gondry’s determination to revel in nostalgia for the simpler days of his childhood alienates anyone who is not a fan of the 70s and 80s. While the two adolescents of the title project a certain charm, the adults – from Microbe’s mother (Audrey Tautou) who is bi-polar to Gasoil’s who is terminally ill by way of Gasoil’s father who is straight out of a Dicken’s novel – are entirely surplus to requirements.
When Microbe (Ange Dargent) meets Gasoil (Théophile Baquet) on the latter’s first day at school, they immediately strike up a friendship. Microbe is a timid, anxious adolescent who is often mistaken for a girl due to his slight frame and long hair. Gasoil is the more mature of the two. By nature a rebel, he soon draws Microbe into his plan to build a car and head for the place where he once spent a glorious summer at holiday camp. The car is none too successfully disguised as a caravan so the friends can avoid detection by the police and once completed, the two take to the road for a summer of adventure which turn out to be a lot less fun than they anticipated.
Although resolutely devoid of any hi-tech special effects, Gondry still manages to introduce the odd note of absurdity. The car/caravan is itself a work of art from the lawn-mower engine to the plastic geraniums proudly displayed outside the window. Its very oddness provides one of the films funnier moments when two police men pose in front of the vehical to take a selfie. There is also a wacky scene involving the two boys and an Asian American football team. But overall, large chunks of the film seem underdeveloped and anti-climactic. This is only Baquet’s second film and he is a real find. He is a lovable, cheeky, Artful Dodger-like character who it’s difficult not to like. Dargent is making his acting debut and is a lot less convincing often reciting the dialogue as if reading from the script. Gondry’s film does provide an antidote the slew of recent films celebrating older male friendships (Nos Femmes, Entre Amis, On Voulait Tout Cassé) yet it has nothing new to say about adolescent angst and the pain of growing up.
The director’s last film, L’Ecume des Jours (Mood Indigo) received a lukewarm response from both critics and cinemagoers pulling in 832 376 admissions. He may still have to wait a little longer for box-office success.