There is an undeniable emphasis centered around the visual elements in Michel Gondry’s films. Sometimes they are whimsical, other times they are hyper-realistic, but most recently they’ve been a crutch for a weak story. The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing, but expecting different results, and Gondry has finally realized this. Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil) is Michel Gondry’s most experimental film to date and his best work since his masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The word ‘experimental’ can mean a variety of things to different people. It can mean trying Ethiopian food for the first time. It could also mean trying out fetishes to spice up your sex life. In the case of Michel Gondry, it means deviating his primary focus from visual effects and stylization, and shifting it to the careful nurturing of the character’s development. It might feel like a mild form of experimentation, but the stark contrast between this film and most of his filmography will convince you otherwise. The entire color palette of the film leans toward the natural and even mundane. There is no sign of the indulgent cinematography we have come to expect from Gondry. The closest thing to come close to his visual aesthetic is the mobile house, and even that feels extremely practical and not at all grandiose. All the visual restraint completely compliments the story and greatly contributes to the simple charm it tries to achieve.
Gondry comes from humble music video roots, doing amazing videos for bands like The White Stripes, Foo Fighters and Björk. The beauty of music videos is that the lyrics are already written, and as a director you just have to bring them to life with visuals. Gondry has always been great at bringing to life the works of writers like Charlie Kaufman and Dave Chapelle, but when it comes to taking the mantle of writer and director, we are left with diminishing returns after The Science of Sleep. As far as his narrative films are concerned, Gondry continues to surprise us by delivering one of his best films in over a decade.
In an out-of-character Gondrian turn from extravagant to prosaic, Microbe and Gasoline’s story follows two social outcasts in a coming-of-age road trip film. Daniel/Microbe (Ange Dargent) and Théo/Gasoline (Théophile Baquet) present perfect counter-balances, having one being too self-aware to be able to be part of the popular crowd, and the other having complete disdain for the popular crowd and the lack of independent thought they represent. The film, up until the very end at least, is clearly centered around Daniel’s perspective and the all too familiar archetype of the budding independent intellectual he represents. Like most children on the cusp of adolescence, Daniel finds himself pulled by the need to express himself and discover his identity, but also while dealing with the overwhelming, peer-fueled need to belong. The introduction of the enlightened Théo and his devil-may-care approach to life and society are meant to fan the embers of Daniel’s individualism.
Aside from some outrageous misadventures involving a desperate dentist, a “massage” parlor haircut and a Korean soccer gang, the film plays through the usual genre motions. What sets it above its countless competitors are the performances that elevate each scene by adding an air of authenticity to every moment. Aside from the wonderful Audrey Tautou, Gondry sacrifices name recognition for unknown actors that are able to effortlessly inject pathos into every interaction and situation.
Michel Gondry takes a perennial genre film and manages to make it as engaging as it is enchanting. Microbe and Gasoline may be humble and relatable at its core, but it still flourishes with glimmers of Gondry’s signature style. Sometimes you need to explore the variety of the world to truly appreciate what you have at home. Welcome home, Michel.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)