Oscilloscope // 2009 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // August 19th, 2010
We don't age; only our photos grow younger.
The long and rambling stories your elderly family members tell are not just a game they play to bore their children. These tales are full of the kind of wisdom and insight that only experience can provide. That doesn't make them any less boring, but we should listen to them anyway. In The Thorn in the Heart, director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes us into the home of his Aunt Suzette to listen to some of the yarns she weaves.
A remarkable woman, Suzette was a schoolteacher for fifty years, educating children in tiny rural schools for her entire life. Her experiences are a history of the second half of the twentieth century; she saw first hand the effects of French imperialism and post-war industrialization while teaching some of the poorest farm children and refugees in the country. Gondry follows his aunt back to some of the places where she worked -- mostly decrepit ruins today -- while discussing what she remembers from her time there and reuniting with old coworkers and students, who simply glow when they see the woman. In those days, she could never stay in one place too long. As the French economy turned away from agriculture and toward manufacturing, people left the farm for the city. Schoolhouse after schoolhouse closed, which constantly forced Suzette to look for work elsewhere. By their own description, though, no matter how long she was around, Suzette touched people's lives very deeply. She's a remarkable woman and a loving, caring teacher, but like many people, Suzette often treated others better than she treated her family.
Gondry paints a slightly different picture of his aunt when dealing with her family life. Gondry loves her dearly, the entire family does, but they also see her as a stern and often cold matriarch who can be very careless of other's feelings, especially those of her son, Jean-Yves. Gondry's cousin is a troubled man who struggled much of his life with his sexuality and has never gotten over his father's death. This manifests in Jean-Yves as a deep resentment of his mother and, though they do love each other, the feeling is certainly mutual. The title of the film is a quote from Suzette about her son, which says all you need to know about where she places the blame for her own troubles.
The Thorn in the Heart is less a documentary than a family portrait in motion. There isn't an overriding message to the film, expect maybe to tell us about the life of a very interesting person we've never heard of. When the story is good, though, a point is unnecessary. Gondry doesn't use many of his signature tricks; instead he uses more quiet, subtle means for this film. He mixes the interviews of his family with their old home movies, little snippets of stop-motion animation, and some model train footage to deliver a meandering work of nostalgic beauty.
Because of the multiple sources, it's hard to expect much from The Thorn in the Heart on a technical level, but Oscilloscope has released the film in a beautiful package on a disc loaded with extras. The foldout carrier and slipcase are decorated with original illustrations from Gondry. Oscilloscope brags that the packaging is made from mixed, environmentally-friendly sources. That's great, but there's so much total material used to carry a single disc that it hardly seems very responsible. That said, it is a very handsome product. The image comes from many places, so the look is all over the place. You have to forgive whatever damage has occurred to the home movie footage, and the transfer is overall quite solid. Surround sound is superfluous for a film like this, but there it is. Nothing goes on in the rear channels, but they apparently have sound coming out of them. The dialog and music are both quite clear, however, and there's nothing to complain about in the sound mix.
The disc really shines in the supplements. The most important extra is a short film called A Brief History of the Harkis. The Harkis were the Algerians who sided with the French during the 1950s uprising. When the French left Algiers, they had to take these supporters with them to save their lives, but didn't treat them very well when they brought them to Europe. The Harkis were interred refugees, essentially, and lived in the poorest rural districts of the country. Suzette taught many Harkis during her career and, to French viewers, the meaning behind this is likely clear. This is more obscure for American viewers, however, and the piece is well-done, informative, and very valuable. Next, we have two interviews with Gondry from the SXSW Film Festival, where he very cogently explains his motivations behind the film and answers amateurish questions from the audience. A series of short pieces follows. "Techno Suzette" is something of a joke. When Suzette first used a Super-8 camera, she thought it was a normal still camera and filmed things that way. After making plenty of fun of her about it, Gondry edited the footage together with some marginal techno music for an amusing little piece. "Calenders Doodled" is pretty much what it sounds like, with a series of very Gondry-esque images of calenders that have been drawn upon. We have the train footage and the stop motion animation in their unedited form and a music video that using footage of the movie to a song by Charlotte Gainsbourg. It's a great collection of extras to round out a fine feature presentation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Films