It’s been a long time since the last Michel Gondry movie (and perhaps even longer since the last time you actually saw one), but at least the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director’s semi-autobiographical new comedy offers a fun — if also fraught and occasionally worrying — explanation for why it took him eight years to follow up “Microbe & Gasoline.”
In “The Book of Solutions,” Pierre Niney plays Marc, an obvious Gondry stand-in who’s deep in post-production on a $5 million film that looks an awful lot like Gondry’s own “Mood Indigo.” And much like Gondry did with that surreal 2013 romance, which was maligned for its messy overabundance of rich ideas, Marc is struggling to find a coherent shape for his would-be opus.
“Anyone, Everyone” already sounds worryingly open-ended and ambitious based on its title alone, and it doesn’t exactly instill confidence in Marc’s financiers when he reveals that he’s still tweaking the fifth act. He tells them that he needs to step out for a cigarette, but in reality Marc plans on running downstairs to his office, stealing all of the hard drives, and absconding with them to his aunt’s house in the Cévennes — the same house in which Gondry squirreled himself away with “Mood Indigo” — where he can re-edit the movie at will. Or, as it turns out, where he will do literally anything else instead of finishing the film that he can’t bring himself to watch.
As you might expect from a whimsical and relentlessly imaginative craftsman who’s only able to calm his anxious (and seemingly neurodivergent) mind when tinkering around on set, “The Book of Solutions” isn’t a movie about the agony of making art so much as it’s a movie about the agony of living with the art that you’ve made. Like Gondry, Marc is animated by the spirit of invention; by the part of the creative process where everything is still liquid and unsettled. And like Gondry, Marc is petrified of the part that comes next, when a filmmaker is limited to the footage they captured on the shoot. There’s obviously no end to how you can play with that footage, but there comes a time when a film begins to tell you what it wants to be — and to reveal nauseating truths about who you are for making it.
For Gondry, the most horrifying self-discoveries of all were ultimately the ones he made about himself during the frenzied process of trying to avoid whatever “Mood Indigo” might have taught him. Specifically, he learned that his all-consuming creative mania could be a real drag on the people who love him most, a group that includes both his aunt (the subject of Gondry’s documentary, “The Thorn in the Heart”) and his long-time collaborators.
But if “The Book of Solutions” might occasionally read as something of a mea culpa, the movie is that much richer because Gondry conceived it as more of an explanation than an apology — albeit one that’s far too sensitive to suggest that “genius” requires or allows for people to be assholes. That starts with Niney’s performance, which is childishly grandiose in a way that inspires a degree of sympathy for even his most annoying traits. Marc’s brain has its drawbacks (whose doesn’t?), but his unfettered imagination is also a gift worth cherishing. It’s what made his crew want to work with him in the first place, and it’s what makes Gondry’s movie about him so amusing to watch.
“The Book of Solutions” is — first and foremost — a high-energy ode to the joys of being possessed by a creative spirit, and the pleasure that Gondry takes in telling a plot-light story that’s driven by pure invention is both palpable and contagious. Yes, we’re a bit concerned by Marc’s decision to stop taking his antidepressants cold turkey, but we’re complicit in wanting to go along for the ride. His sweet aunt Denise (a delightful Françoise Lebrun as the loveliest enabler alive) gives us tacit permission to sit back and enjoy, even if his loyal editor (Blanche Gardin as Charlotte) and his possibly smitten assistant (Frankie Wallach as Sylvia) aren’t so at ease.
The mania starts when Marc discovers a leaf with a perfectly cut pinhole in its flesh, which allows him to see the world through a whole new lens. After that, it’s only a matter of time before he’s making a feature-length documentary about an ant, dreaming up some (flawed) ideas for how to “save millions of lives” by making driving safer, and even agreeing to take over as the mayor of his aunt’s little town. Once in a while, his ideas are ostensibly in service of finishing his film (e.g. Marc instructs Charlotte to start editing the movie in reverse, and later hosts a laugh-out-loud funny jam session with the very famous music icon he recruits to write the score), but more often than not they’re in the service of never finishing his film.
The most telling of these episodic flights of fancy finds Marc suggesting that the four-hour-long “Anyone, Everyone” should include a brightly lit stop-motion short that plays during intermission so people who need to pee can find their way to the bathroom without breaking the spell for everybody else. I’ll give you one guess at what happens exactly halfway through “The Book of Solutions” (which runs a far more reasonable 102 minutes). In a movie that’s never coy about its relationship to real life, this self-reflexive flourish still functions as a uniquely tacit admission that Marc and his maker are one and the same; Gondry’s film isn’t just about the inner-workings of his mind, it’s also the ultimate product of them.
It’s a shame that “The Book of Solutions” eventually settles into a traditional narrative arc — complete with a romance between Marc and an eccentric intern played by Camille Rutherford — because Gondry’s disinterest in telling a story is as obvious as his enthusiasm for everything else. The nature of this project doesn’t allow his avoidance of an ending to be quite as extreme as that of his main character (though a third act shoot-out almost threatens to bridge the gap), and Gondry’s film ultimately becomes so conflicted between celebrating Marc’s process and accommodating for it that the Book of Solutions itself — the self-help tome that Marc writes when it becomes easier for him to “solve” all the world’s problems than finish his film — comes off as a mere afterthought.
But that too is another point of synchronicity between Gondry and his alter-ego, and the non-ending that he leaves us with here only helps to cement the impression of an artist who will never be able to change his stripes. For the first time in a long time, he’s made a movie that should make everyone happy for that.
“The Book of Solutions” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.