In the work of French filmmaker Michel Gondry, cinema has returned to its early role as a wondrous magic show. On Saturday, Gondry will visit Portland's Hollywood Theatre to present The Thorn in the Heart, wherein he has trained his cameras on his own family. It is a relief to find none of the exploitation that often attends this enterprise, the lurid ogling of some personal train wreck. And there are also surprisingly few of Gondry's customary special effects.
Mostly, there is Suzette. Suzette is Michel Gondry's aunt. White of hair and regal of bearing, she emerges as a den mother, not only to the Gondry clan, but to generations of children who had her as a schoolteacher. The director follows her as she tours the villages of her former employment. A model train chugs along from one marker to the next, and what seems like half of southern France turns out to remember her tutelage. Suzette discovers the remains of the classroom where she once screened movies for Algerian refugees. The Gondrys happily restore the projector, and stage a nighttime reunion among the ruins.
But all is not blissful memories of swimming lessons and school plays. One of Mme. Suzette's pupils has never lived up to her expectations, and tragically, never will: her own son. The haggard-looking Jean-Yves admits the vague yet devastating toll taken by his closeted sexuality, and by his father's death. In between pretty and often boring home movies, Gondry delivers the most piercing little shocks. Just what the film's title refers to, for example. Or who owns that adorable model train set. Out of simple toys and talk, Gondry teases a portrait of late-life resentment to rival Citizen Kane. Suzette confesses her own isolation. Teaching her young charges to read, this matriarch never got to know people her age. Now she is going blind and cannot recognize them.
Gondry is not content to record footage of an old woman's tears. He also shows that footage to Aunt Suzy herself, surrounded by her offspring, who lean in with hard-earned words of humble wisdom. "Moms cry as well as their sons!" declares the moviemaker. As stars in their own tragic drama, Suzette and Jean-Yves are able to look back and laugh, if only a little. Fragmentary as it is, this documentary is here to heal.
Opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre. Michel Gondry will attend shows at 7:30 and 9:45 pm Saturday, May 29.