“We have some memories!” says Madame Boyer. “Oh, many memories!” confirms Suzette Gondry. They laugh, two former schoolteachers who worked together in Revens some 40 years ago. They are also off screen. As they recall organizing parties for their students, the camera remains on one side of a blue door, waiting for the women to enter. They murmur and coo. And then Michel Gondry scoots into the frame, opening the door a crack to reveal a bright whoosh of light. “Come on, Suzette,” he encourages, then carefully closes the door again, so she can open it and the ladies can enter, reminiscing.
Like so many moments in The Thorn in the Heart (L’épine dans le coeur) is at once weird and delightful, exposing both the process of remembering and the process of recreating memories. In this, it’s typical of this wonderful documentary, seemingly simple and sweet, while also staging that simplicity and sweetness. Memories, the film proposes, shape experience and relationships, but they are ever mutable, a life’s accumulation of images and effects that never quite cohere or stop. As Gondry’s aunt looks back on her life — as a teacher, wife, and mother — the movie illustrates, with home movies and snapshots, interviews and reenactments. None of these versions of the past is absolute, and all help to produce the present.
The documentary opens on a familiar scene of collective recollection: Suzette and her family have gathered for a meal, and she’s telling a story about her late husband, Jean-Guy. The camera pans the room, pausing on individual faces as everyone listens, returning to Suzette, whose laughter is mixed with tears, her memories of kugelhopf and Jean-Guy transformed into a jumble of joy and loss.
Following this immersion in the family dynamic, the film structures Suzette’s story as a series of teaching assignments, each new episode introduced with a model train passing by a sign that names the town where she lived, however briefly, and a note of the year she arrived: Montjardin in 1955, La Mouline in 1956, etc. The chronology is deceptive, however, for it suggests a linear order that the film simultaneously challenges. Suzette’s moves from place to place are affected by her family life, in particular, her relationship with Jean-Yves, her son.
At first, Suzette’s memories are focused on the difficulties of the job — the lack of resources, the smallness of the classrooms, her own inexperience. “Once they’d taken their baccalaureate,” she and a colleague recall, “The young teachers were thrown into the hardest classes with children of different ages in remote places.” As Suzette visits these places, she chats with the film crewmembers and Gondry. At the same time, the film includes interviews with Jean-Yves. One that recurs has him walking along a road, surrounded by leafy trees, the camera tracking in front of him. “She wasn’t always easy,” he smiles. “We understood each other.”
Gondry listens and frames, bringing as well his own memories, encouraging Jean-Yves to describe the Super 8 movies he made as a child, recordings of meals, holidays, and kids at play, “what we did at home mostly.” Some of this footage finds its way into The Thorn in the Heart, where it’s typically nostalgic and sometimes odd. Gondry discovers as well Suzette’s similar interest in movies, as she looks up the schoolhouse in Villemagne where she once arranged to show movies outdoors. Gondry and his crew set to reenacting the past, refurbishing the projection booth and inviting locals to attend.
That Villemagne was also the place where Suzette taught Algerian students during the 1960s (insisting that girls as well as boys attend class) seems almost as an afterthought. But as the student numbers increased each semester, she suggests, it was clear that the newly transplanted Algerian families — brought into town, she recalls, in rumbling military trucks — were eager for education and community. She meets with an ex-student, a huge guy now whose yellow t-shirt hovers over her much smaller figure as they walk away from the camera, recalling casually how different he and his fellow Muslims must appeared to her back then.
Like this image, Suzette’s memories both recede and loom throughout the documentary, which random-seeming structure is anything but. When the crew visit a classroom now populated by new teachers and their pupils, Gondry has them don “invisibility” coats, such that the processed image shows their heads or limbs bobbing without torsos, under Charlotte Gainsbourg’s song “Little Monsters.” Delightfully, the sequence suggests at once our perennial efforts to grasp experiences and to hang onto images, to tell stories as we also move on from the past.
Suzette’s relationship with her own son is similarly elusive and ever immediate. Gondry asks each about Jean-Yves’ complicated relationship with his father, for whom Jean-Yves worked for 10 years at a sawmill before finally revealing that he was not interested in maintaining the “family” business. “You spent the first part of your life with mom as your teacher,” observes Gondry, “and then dad as your boss.” Jean-Yves smiles, rather sadly, and nods. He was unable, she admits, to tell his father he was gay, a silence that still hangs over son years after his father’s death. At the time of Jean-Guy’s passing, mother and son recall, Jean-Yves was hospitalized with a breakdown.
The film watches both looking back, their interconnected but also disparate processes made visible in a somewhat antic reenactment. Introduced as an illustration of Jean-Yves’ inclination to drama, the film reenacts a scene when he was trapped in the bathroom, unable to open the door because his mother has left laundry to dry just in front of it. “For greater realism,” the director announces, they will “put clothes on the drying rack.” And, Gondry asserts from off screen, Action!” As Jean-Yves calls out from the barely open door (“Mama! Mama!”), she makes her way to rescue him. “You don’t have to shout like a madman,” she says, then realizes when she gets to the door, “The head was further out.” Yes, the crew agrees as the camera rocks to keep with Jean-Yves’ ongoing performance in frame, “The Drying Rack Tragedy has been recreated.”
The fun of this moment — mother and son laughing over what was, for an instant, a trauma and emblem of other traumas — indicates the film’s own sense, and sense-making. As the family gathers again to watch a version of Thorn in the Heart, their faces are illuminated by the film’s flickering light. Watching a scene where Suzette’s eyes tear up, Jean-Yves reassures her, “Everyone cries sometimes. It’s just a fact of life.” The making of the film is now another memory, changeable and reiterated.
“So,” Gondry asks his aunt near film’s end. “This shoot won’t be too bad a memory?” She sits in a green forest with him, a rushing brook nearby. “I think that when you asked Jean-Yves to take part in this,” Suzette tells Gondry, “You did it for me, because you knew it was important to the story.” It’s the surprise of the process, visible. He describes for her the “sort of harmony that’s created between you, the place, and the work I do. It makes a whole.”