Michel Gondry‘s movies usually heavily feature whimsical, low-fi contraptions and designs, not only as part of the production design, but as important pieces of the reality of the movie itself—whether dreamed (The Science of Sleep) or used to create new worlds (Be Kind Rewind). His latest, Microbe & Gasoline, confines the gadgetry to basically one item: a homemade car that disguises itself as a shed with concealable wheels. And in telling the story of the two kids who build it, the movie at first raises suspicions that this is at least semi-autobiographical, with Gondry perhaps explaining to us through story why he likes to create such things in all his work.
Except, like the shed itself, this may just be a clever disguise in plain view.
An autobiographical film would offer real insight into the lives of its kids, usually (in the case of filmmakers) showing how they triumphed despite the odds against their becoming successful creators. Our protagonists, bullied late-bloomer Daniel “Microbe” Gueret and cool new kid Theo “Gasoline” Leloir, are little more than archetypes; it’s soon clear that the character Gondry identifies with most is the shed-car they build, about which we learn every corner and component. Late in the film, Theo demands to know why Daniel never asks him anything about himself, but he might as well be asking us, and the answer’s simple: your ride is way more interesting than you, dude.
One of Gondry’s more interesting choices is the casting of Audrey Tautou as Daniel’s mother, a flakey new-ager prone to emotional moodswings and disconnected from reality. From a certain cynical point of view, it’s like Amelie grew up, but her whimsy became disconnection from reality when parental and marital responsibilities got piled on. This makes it all the more ironic that Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet put out a much better quirky, youth-on-the-run road trip movie last year. It was called The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet, and was buried domestically by Harvey Weinstein so you probably never saw it. You should. In that film, a child prodigy sneaks away from home to travel cross-country and win a science prize. In Microbe and Gasoline, Theo wants to sneak away and travel cross-country because he has fond memories of a summer camp he went to at age 8…where the women had big boobs. Uh, huh-huh?
Fear of women and sex is as strong a theme here as that of art going unappreciated. Daniel draws pornographic pictures to masturbate to rather than actual photos; unlike his brothers, he has no computer or smartphone. He pines for a classmate and awkwardly dances with her in a homemade costume, and at one point he accidentally ventures into a brothel and winds up being chased by an Asian biker gang who are being filmed there for a documentary that goes bad. In all these cases, art distances him from connecting with actual women, save the older gallery owner who hangs his drawings for an exhibit nobody shows up to. Even in a drawing competition where Daniel is clearly the best, he loses to a girl who has more imagination than skill. Only Theo appreciates his talents, and thus do the boys bond, though by movie’s end Gondry definitely wants you to wonder what the point of it all was.
It’s not a specific spoiler to say there’s no real triumph in the finale; art, perhaps, must be its own reward rather than any means to greater happiness in other areas, and it’s possible nobody will care about your creations besides your best friend and you. Is that enough? This story doesn’t provide an answer; instead, it implies, you must.
Three burritos for Microbe and Gasoline, in which I found little to actively dislike, but also no compelling reason to exalt it beyond the merely agreeable.
Featured image: StudioCanal
Luke Y. Thompson is the weekend editor for Nerdist, and is delighted if you read this far. Follow him @LYTrules, if Twitter’s your thing.