Ingmar Bergman said it best: “To shoot a film is to organize an entire universe.” And French writer/director Michel Gondry has been heeding this advice since the 90s. With his start in music videos — Foo Fighters, “Everlong;” Björk, “Bachelorette;” Kylie Minogue, “Come Into My World” — Gondry has specialized in handmade worlds that are left of center and slightly magical.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Mood Indigo explored dark and depressing subject matter through these worlds, but they are products of an adult dealing with adult conflicts. What about the world of a teenager? Their world is small, yet there are those constant hints that it is much larger. At that age almost everything seems magical and slightly terrifying.
That is the age in which Gondry situates his latest film, Microbe & Gasoline. Fans of Eternal Sunshine and The Science of Sleep won’t find as much whimsy and magical realism in Microbe & Gasoline, but they will see where those threads originated from.
Set in modern-day France, Daniel (Ange Dargent) — nicknamed Microbe — isn’t the youngest of the household, but he is the runt of the litter and the poor sap who takes the blame. Primarily by his mother (Audrey Tautou), who singles Daniel out because she sees in him a child much like herself. But Mom doesn’t seem to have had designs on being a mother in the first place. Nor does Daniel’s father, who is a non-factor.
Awkward at school and somewhat of an outcast, Daniel befriends the new kid, Théo (Théophile Baquet) — nickname Gasoline because he works with engines. Theo is the coolest uncool kid around — no friends, just a bike loaded with a squawk box, sound effects and a microphone. He is the producer of his own radio show on wheels.
Daniel wants to be an artist and Théo does what he can to help Daniel feel welcomed as one, including playacting a whole charade at an art gallery to make Daniel feel better. It is goofy, but also heartfelt and kind.
Théo isn’t happy with his family life and wants to travel to the center of France where he once attended a wonderful summer camp — one where the women’s breast were big and the kids played all day. Daniel returns Théo’s friendship by helping him build a makeshift car. Since the small, handmade automobile isn’t street-legal, Daniel devises a plan to conceal it as a tiny house. It works quite well and Daniel and Théo take off on their five-mile and hour excursion.
The best parts of Microbe & Gasoline are this journey, which takes the two teens through harmless, but revealing, twists and turns. According to press notes, this is a journey that Gondry himself took as a child and as he looks back on the events of his childhood, the friends he made and the adventures he undertook, he does so with rose-colored glasses. And much like the work of Mark Twain, it is a warm and welcoming shade.