By Elias Savada.
Summer, 2014. Versailles. Boyhood. Road trip.
That’s a possible tagline description of Microbe & Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil), Michel Gondry’s low-key, coming-of-age ramble through the French countryside by a pair of 14-year-old boys. This is not your usual flight of fancy that Gondry fans are wont to expect. The visual trickery that has embellished his music videos (The White Stripes, Björk) and such features as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), that Oscar-winning (original screenplay), bold love story from the mixed-up – in a very good way – mind of Charlie Kaufman, or The Science of Sleep (2006). More recently he opened our minds to the brilliantly designed musical fantasy Mood Indigo (2013), a colorful drink of an alternate universe set in the Bronx. That film’s star Audrey Tautou (Amelie) is back in a supporting role in this 2015 French-language film now reaching American theaters in an English-subtitled version.
While Gondry has jettisoned his usual whimsical spin on reality, and the curious contraptions that populate some of his outlandishly enjoyable films, such as a piano(c)ocktail or a memory-erasing machine, his new film, for the most part, is a straight-forward tale of two runaways and their home-built house-car that takes them from Paris to the backwaters of France.
While I always feel his films are distinctly stylized, Microbe & Gasoline is conspicuously personal, without the pizzazz. The director-writer’s life is embodied in young Daniel Guéret a.k.a. Microbe (for his diminutive stature), a talented young artist and restless middle child in Versailles. He’s anguished by a growing uncertainty about his masturbatory skills (or lack there) when he’s not being confused for a girl because of his longish hair. As part of the local reject crowd, he suffers at the hands of the school bully. He’s counseled by his hyper-sensitive, easily depressed mother (Tautou) that the nudes he draws (and hides under his mattress) are better than his works a local art dealer placed on her gallery walls.
His new best friend is Russian émigré Theo Leloir, a class clown, mechanical magician, and son of an antiquities dealer. He’s straight out a Brando movie, with motorcycle jacket and unruly hair. He helps his brutish dad fix his car, often absorbing the scent of fuel. Hence his nickname Gasoline.
Together, they’re outcasts (and teenagers), ready to conquer the world. Theo’s the optimist, pushing his partner out of moments of funk. Never give up, never surrender! (to quote Galaxy Quest)
What wonderful luck that Gondry found Ange Dargent and Théophile Baquet as his muses. Dargent had only acted on stage, and Baquet had been on screen in a small role in the 2011 French film War of the Buttons (La nouvelle guerre des boutons), based on Louis Pergaud’s oft-filmed novel. He has acting in his blood, though, as the grandson of actor-cellist-skier Maurice Baquet, and son of Alexandra Gonin (actress, casting director) and actor Grégori Baquet. Even with this pedigree, Gondry insisted that the lad was found at the entrance of a school by his casting directors.
The boys, thick as thieves, decide they can take a broken down old lawnmower motor and make it work. Next up? Build a car, or something like it. Well, actually, nothing like it. They realize that their initial junk-mobile wouldn’t get the French seal of approval from its MVA. But, by building a small house/garden shed structure on top of the low-powered frame, they can always pull off the road, flop down a levered set of wooden boards, and pretend to be, well, a cute little house.
As the film reaches its midpoint, they take to the off roads at the start of summer vacation, filled with confidence, exchanging nicely written dialogue and campfire stories as they head along mostly flat streets (anything more than a slight incline forces one of them to push). A schoolyard crush has forced one of them to fib about their destination, but their misguided, episodic adventures find them meeting up with a dentist and his wife, empty-nesters who put them up until the boys freak out over the Shakira posters on the wall. They butt heads with a group of bullies who give chase after an aborted haircut in a Korean massage parlor. There’s also some police and a last hurrah in the village of Auroux-en-Morvan.
There’s more than a little luck and happenstance tossed in here, but Gondry, of course, is known for his fantasies. Microbe & Gasoline‘s nostalgic adventure ride provides a nice diversion for the director’s usual whimsies. Like the film’s home on wheels, should you strip away its roof, the small scale frame would reveal a very large heart.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).