When Michel Gondry writes his own films, I’ve noticed that his protagonists have a tendency to act like quirky, whimsical teenagers. The misfit oddballs of The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind probably found a Zoltar machine, made a wish, and wound up in a Michel Gondry script.
In retrospect, that makes Gondry’s 2012 exercise The We and the I a more interesting experiment. The film was workshopped with students in The Bronx and shot as a kind of a tapestry of teenage life. Though I enjoyed The We and the I to a certain extent (I like it less now than I did then), it felt like a doodle or a sketch for something else (or, really, a workshop project).
So I wonder how much Microbe and Gasoline owes to Gondry’s experiences making The We and the I. Gondry’s newest might also owe something to films along the lines of Joe Dante’s Explorers. It’s a misfit teenage buddy movie, but maybe Gondry’s been writing those kinds of movies all along.
Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil)
Director: Michel Gondry
Release Date: TBD
Daniel (Ange Dargent) is an introverted budding artist with an eye for portraits as well as the crude porno pics he hides under his bed. He’s small and looks younger than 14, which is why everyone calls him “Microbe.” Worse, most people mistake him for a girl. There’s the new kid, Theo (Theophile Baquet), who has a penchant for swagger, Michael Jackson leather jackets, and tinkering with machines. He’s poor and there’s grease under his fingernails, so they call him “Gasoline.” The outsiders bond over a sound board that Gasoline has attached to his bike handles.
It’s a movie, and they’re loners who represent divergent social classes and upbringings. So of course they become friends. It’s the logic of the misfit buddy movie, and I don’t object to it.
Misfits attract misfits, but like magnets, the bond between cinematic misfits is between opposite poles rather than like ones. That might be why so many misfit kid movies often feature groups comprised of individual specialists--the tough one, the scientific one, the artsy one, the charismatic one, the one who knows Spanish--rather than people who are identical. Besides, who wants to hang out with someone who’s exactly the same? How boring.
Microbe and Gasoline are both 14, which is that point when kids want to be (or seem) more adult but don’t quite know how that works. They act like they think adults should act, which is mostly learned from movies and TV rather than life. At a costume party, the boys are dressed like old men, and they loaf on the couch, world weary and judgmental, though Microbe looks on longingly at a girl from class. As Microbe obsesses over his crush, Gasoline offers advice as if he’s had a decades-long history of loves and losses. There are limits to maturity, no matter how precocious a teenager is, and most of the comedy is rooted in this teenage worldview. It pervades the whole film, but it really takes charge in the second half of Microbe and Gasoline.
With school out for the summer, the boys build a mobile home and go out on the road together. Many of Michel Gondry’s films have an adorably ramshackle, handmade look about them, like the sweded movies in Be Kind Rewind or the hand-drawn animation from his Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The boys’ mobile home--part tiny house, part go-kart--is such a Gondry-looking contraption; wood, nuts, bolts, inventive gimmickry. You feel the splinters and rust, same goes for the gas fumes. From here the film embarks on an odyssey through Gondryland, and the teenage point of view takes over completely. The danger of being a runaway is relatively low. There’s just freedom.
Some might find the shift from a grounded world to Gondryland jarring. Picture riffs on fairy tales by way of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and you get some inkling of what happens. But I felt this change was a charming way to invoke the youthful promise of summer. It also shows just how out of their element the boys are. The parents have no sway over the kids, so the kids have to find their own way. (Microbe’s mom is played by Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame, though she’s a bit of a non-presence in the film even before summer begins.) Plus, it’s all pretty funny.
Earlier I mentioned the idea of sameness and difference when it comes to the people we hang out with. This become an important component of Microbe and Gasoline’s friendship, and maybe most friendships. Our teenage years are about trying to figure out what adulthood is like, sure, but they’re really about trying to define ourselves. Microbe is worried he’s too much of a blank slate, and he’s anxious that other people are doing the work of defining him, including Gasoline. And we do wind up mimicking our friends to a certain degree just like, earlier in life, we mimicked our parents/guardians and siblings. It’s the inescapable fact of interaction.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that the friends we love--the ones that matter and that we think of even years later after losing touch--are people who changed us in some way. We take on some of their qualities, they take on some of ours, and in this synthesis of personalities there’s something new that’s brought out in ourselves and sometimes into the world. An inside joke, maybe, or an experience of some kind that wouldn’t have existed without that other person.
Gondry captures the way these kinds of friendships can change us, and why they’re so important when we’re young works-in-progress. Even when Microbe and Gasoline leaves grounded reality, it’s all tethered to that genuine, warm feeling we get whenever we meet and befriend someone who really gets us. The boys made a sweet ride, but not a saccharine one.