Following his unequaled triumph in the form of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry has sometimes been treated as an insufferably twee handcrafter lost in his own whimsy without the leavening agent of Charlie Kaufman. But perhaps even moreso than fellow stylist Wes Anderson, Gondry’s supposed cuteness has nothing on his sense of melancholy. Last summer’s Mood Indigo may have been sweetly whimsical, but it was also so achingly sad in its finish that I saw an audience member at an after-movie Q&A react with real confusion, practically begging the director to explain why it was actually a more hopeful movie than it seemed (it wasn’t, he explained).
Microbe and Gasoline isn’t quite so downbeat, but the combination of Gondry and the movie’s logline—two young teenagers build their own car and drive across France—will probably create expectations more in line with the wildest fantasies of Indigo or The Science of Sleep. But Microbe is more like Gondry’s underappreciated The We and the I, only, actually, less surreal. Théo (Théophile Baquet), nicknamed Gasoline by mean peers, does indeed build his own car, and it’s a motorized house on wheels, to boot. Anyone familiar with Gondry might reasonably expect shots of the house on the road to eventually transition into some manner of stop-motion, with the house emitting cotton-y, handmade puffs of smoke. That moment never arrives; the movie’s big special effect appears to be the motorized house itself, very much rooted in the real world (at least, as much as a teenager-driven house-car made out of an old lawnmower motor can be).
The adventures Théo and Daniel (Ange Dargent), nicknamed Microbe for his diminutive size, get into on their road trip aren’t especially surreal—not even as surreal, really, as that endless bus ride in The We and the I, where a trip through the Bronx takes enough time to get halfway to Montreal. The boys talk about themselves, spy on Daniel’s crush, fight, enter an art contest… this may be the most grounded fiction film Gondry has ever made. If anything, it errs on the side of downbeat realism. The movie is lightly amusing, but bummers lurk around the corner. At times, I felt a little like the girl at the Q&A: can’t this be a little more hopeful, somehow?
But maybe it can’t. The movie also feels autobiographical, not necessarily in the sense that either kid must reflect Gondry’s childhood (though Daniel does draw cartoons), but in that Microbe and Gasoline plays like an interpretation of what it might be like to grow up as a Gondry hero in the real world with the music video inventions stripped away. “You’ve grown,” Daniel’s depressive academic mother (an against-type Audrey Tatou) tells him toward the end of the movie, and, you know, he does look a little bigger than he did at the start. If it’s another Gondry optical illusion, it’s a fantastically subtle one.