In Michel Gondry’s latest effort, we find the director completely distancing himself from the ever-increasing ridiculousness of his visual gimmickry. What worked so well for him in his breakout success Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind back in 2004 had become well-worn and too precious to take seriously by the time 2013’s Mood Indigo hit theaters. One wonders whether the relatively lukewarm reception to that film left Gondry questioning what exactly he was trying to say by making films, and thankfully the result is a lovely little film which does incredibly more with much less visual trickery than he’s ever used as a major director.
Microbe and Gasoline is a relatively straightforward exploration of a rash summer adventure and developing friendship between two early teen boys from Versailles. Through excellent pacing and brilliantly chosen moments, Gondry introduces us to Daniel (Ange Dargent), a budding artist teasingly referred to as Microbe by his school peers. Whereas Gondry could’ve decided to lay it on thick and paint Daniel as an outcast put upon by his less erudite classmates, the director opts for a more nuanced path. Daniel gets on well enough with the kids at his school, and the main conflict in his life revolves around grappling with the reality that at some point he’ll die, although this stops short of a full on existential crisis. Content to create series of paintings of his fake-punk older brother and create pornographic doodles for his own personal use, Daniel has come to accept to the quotidian mundanity of his daily routines.
Generally resigned to the dullness and boredom of his days at school, Daniel perks up when Théo (played with tremendous vitality by Théophile Baquet) transfers in. Awkward and constantly smelling like gasoline (hence the nickname), Théo and Daniel’s nascent friendship is a joy to watch as it develops, and Gondry’s acumen at visual storytelling here is aided greatly by his resistance to make their limbs grow like crazy or give them the ability to stop time or whatever else it is that he probably would have done back in 2011 or 2012. By the time school is winding down in the late Spring, the two have already decided to live an exemplary Summer together.
A random trip to a scrapyard for Théo’s gruff father yields a stock 50cc 2-stroke engine, which leads to a go-cart, and finally an improbable though gloriously realized small house on wheels. Gondry and his two young actors craft a lovely, lazy familiarity that holds together the objectively unexciting nature of what they’re doing with each other and elevates their activities to so much more than just building something together over a long sequences of shots. Their journey is obviously a metaphorical one, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions about what’s truly driving each of them to leave home without very much supplies or much of a plan to speak of. By the time the Microbe and Gasoline turns into a full-on road movie, we’re happy to watch these two do just about anything, and ready to wish them the best as they do it.
By stepping away from the technically exhilarating if a bit tired visual quirks he made his name on, Gondry’s mastery as a storytelling and narrative filmmaker stands front and center. It’s a brave thing he’s done, telling such a small story in such a loving and restrained manner, ditching the sentimentality that weighed down films like Mood Indigo and the Science of Sleep. Plot, exposition, and more natural though no less exciting camera work all take back seats to genuine character development, and Gondry’s faith in Dargent and Baquet to truly embody their roles yields tremendous results. The conclusion of Microbe and Gasoline, as open-ended as it is, approaches perfection in a way no one expected from Gondry at this point in his career. It’s exciting to think that he might be doing more of this in the future, and it’s worth hoping that he will.