Michel Gondry isn’t a newcomer, but he always manages to surprise us. The French native, whose “Mood Indigo” opens in the U.S. today, has already inspired a generation of filmmakers. His eccentric lo-fi take on mise-en-scene and visuals aren’t just inventive — they have steadily made him into one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. His application of surrealism and the dreamlike logic of his narratives offer plenty of surprises even when the movies are mixed bags. Here’s a look at the best and worst of Gondry’s filmography to date.
9. “The Green Hornet” (2011)
In 2001, Michel Gondry made a ill-advised segue into big-budget Hollywood features. The whole thing seemed a little iffy from the beginning. Directing a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg was a questionable move to say the least, many wondering how a filmmaker with such an individual, auteur take of things would adapt. Sadly, the results proved the error. The film — which was actually a project Gondry initially tried to make nearly 20 years earlier — hardly ranked among the better superhero efforts of late. Sony reportedly restricted Gondry’s artistic freedom and left him with a messy product. The film, which stars Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz, is a half-baked collage of possibilities — part origin story, part stoner comedy, the plot is both poorly constructed and oddly inconsequential. Characters seem haphazardly thrown together. We may never know what the director’s cut of “The Green Hornet” could have looked like — but it would certainly have been better than this.
8. “Human Nature” (2001)
An ambitious film by any standards, “Human Nature” is especially impressive because it’s also a debut feature. Written by master of mind-bending fiction Charlie Kaufman, the film is told entirely in flashbacks via three perspectives — one from the netherworld — and questions the grounds of civilization and its war against primal sexual urges. Unfortunately, the film, which stars Tim Robbins, Rhys Ifans, Miranda Otto and Patricia Arquette, doesn’t do enough with its inventive premise and at times just stretches it thin. Following a woman born with a rare hormonal imbalance (thick hair all over her body), a Mowgli-wannabe and an inane psychologist obsessed with manners, it’ll make you laugh and ponder to some extent, but really doesn’t hit its intended (or suspected) target and depth. Its narrative only loosely comes together in the end and lacks proper emotional bite. It continuously evades delving into the truth behind its manic characters and moments, and ultimately leaves you wishing for depth on par with the complicated structure.
7. “Be Kind Rewind” (2008)
In his review, Roger Ebert described “Be Kind Rewind” as “the kind of amusing film you can’t wait to see on DVD.” Indeed, this is a film that many people struggle to like but don’t take too seriously. For all its zaniness, the narrative isn’t all that engaging as a whole. Following a junkyard worker (Jack Black) and video store clerk (Mos Def) recreating and refilming classic movies for a senile customer, the journey quickly loses steam as there’s nothing up for grabs — nowhere to go and nothing to care about. It is, however, representative of its time. It captures and celebrates the do-it-yourself rip-and-mix mentality of the Youtube Generation. Hell, it invented the word “sweded.” You have to give it give it credit for that.
6. “The Thorn in the Heart” (2009)
A documentary about Gondry’s formidable aunt Suzette, “The Thorn in the Heart” is a seemingly mundane project. But it’s also thoroughly personal and features a fascinating subject: Suzette’s claim to fame involves teaching Algerian kids that other teachers ignored in the wake of the war of independence. The real point of interest turns out to be her relationship with her son Jean-Yves — middle-aged, unkempt and a “thorn.” In a quiet, underplayed style, the film reveals the pair’s uneven communication and tumultuous history: how they were never able to bond and why it left Jean-Yves to live an isolated life, unable to express himself and be open about his homosexuality. That in itself is an impressive revelation only slightly held back by the muffled tone. The film doesn’t really play to an audience or develop a strong perspective. Even so, it’s hard to deny the possibility that Gondry mainly made this solid movie for the people who star in it.
5. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” (2005)
Gondry’s first documentary is loads of fun, even if it’s a bit rough around the edges. Inspired by Mel Stuart’s 1973 music festival portrait “Wattstax,” it follows a giddy Chappelle during the summer of 2004 when he threw a block party in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood. The film only struggles when it ventures away from the story of the event and just relishes in the music. The rambling portrait never congeals into a distinctive perspective on why the event matters. It simply wants us to get in the groove and enjoy the amazing performance — from the likes of Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, the Roots, Bilal, and Lauryn Hill with the reunited Fugees. Ultimately, that’s not such a bad thing. The issue is that it mutes the intriguing forays into the surrounding New York subculture. Even so, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be gleaned from the peculiar characters that pop up throughout, including a dedicated marching band from Ohio’s Central State University and — in the words of Chappelle himself — “nineteen white people peppered in the crowd.”
4. “The We and the I” (2012)
“The We and the I” follows a simple idea: a group of teenagers travel on bus after the last day of school. Starring a cast of real New York teenagers recruited from the Point, a community center in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, it captures a snapshot of their lives in real time: their fighting, flirting, laughing and lying as they wrestle about in a contained environment. Gondry inhabits the community by letting their perspective lead the way. While we witness the ups and downs of various relationships and secrets are revealed, the conclusions are open-ended. The movie embraces the chaos of youth with mesmerizing results.
3. “Is The Man Who is Tall Happy?” (2013)
At the beginning of Gondry’s portrait of noted linguist, social activist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, the filmmaker explains that he hopes to “focus his often shattered creativity. And maybe contribute to expose values I share.” It just happens that, in the process of realizing that goal, he’s interviewing one of the major intellectuals alive in the world today. The animated result, featuring drawings by the director in his distinctive jittery style, remains captivating throughout. Gondry delivers a provocative and intimate insight into the evolving theories, concepts and humanity of a beautiful mind, as well as its relation to Gondry’s own thought processes. The shifting dialogue between the two men, captured over the course of several months, cover a myriad of topics and big ideas. Thankfully, the hand-drawn framing devise means it’s not all heavy rhetoric, flowering color and directionless whimsy. Gondry’s strongest suits serve a higher purpose.
2. “The Science of Sleep” (2006)
Arguably Gondry’s most polarising work, “The Science of Sleep” is profoundly magical and moving. Starring Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Miou-Miou, and Alain Chabat, the hyperactive, handcrafted fantasy follows Stéphane Miroux, a young man who often confuses waking, sleeping and dreaming, as he returns to his childhood home after his father passes away. Falling in love with his neighbour Stéphanie, he becomes obsessed with her, objectifying and infantilizing their relationship in the process. As a result, Stéphane’s grasp of reality disperses to beyond a point of balance — one morning he wakes up with his feet in the refrigerator. He struggles to truly connect or express himself. In one scene, he mournfully says, “I wish I could talk with my dad.” It articulates the hidden sadness lurking in the background of his life. This is not a film for those lacking patience. You must embrace its experience, evolve with the motions one step at a time. But it’s worth it for the poetic climax: The film closes with Stéphane and Stéphanie riding Golden the Pony Boy across a field before sailing off into the cellophane ocean’s horizon in her white boat. That might be the crowning image of Gondry’s career.
1. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)
But the shining star in Gondry’s collection of cinematic wonders, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is sheer genius incarnate. The movie perfectly distills every element of his filmmaking talent into a satisfactory package. Propelled by a beautifully constructed Charlie Kaufman screenplay, Gondry’s essentially flawless film has changed viewers’ lives by applying the same lyrical wisdom of the Alexander Pope poem that inspired its title. (“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!” it reads. “The world forgetting, by the world forgot.”) Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, “Sunshine” is an epic, labyrinthine tale, unfolding ideas of eternal love and the human mind with utmost care and understanding. Constructed in non-linear form, it shows the entire process of emotions that live and die over the course of a relationship: two songbirds, Joel and Clementine, meet, fall head over heels, grow closer and drift apart. Clementine then undergoes a scientific procedure to wipe her memory of Joel. The doctor bluntly describes it as “brain damage.” Joel, suitably distraught, follows suit. But it’s not so simple. Travelling into his disintegrating mind, we bear witness to his soul and aching pain as the past slowly drifts away — out of sight, out of mind. The outcome is heartbreaking. Simply put, this film brings us closer to our surroundings (no easy feat) and expertly magnifies the reasons why life is worth living.