Microbe et Gasoil (Michel Gondry, France 2015). Written and directed by Michel Gondry / Edited by Elise Fievet / Cinematography by Laurent Brunet / Music by Jean-Claude Vannier. Starring Ange Dargent, Theophile Baquet, Diane Besnier, Audrey Tautou.
Microbe and Gasoline is an outstanding example of how conventional narrative and the joy of simple storytelling in the hands of a master of filmmaking can work in a tale that just wants to be fun. Gondry has achieved something that somehow seems rare these days: a heartfelt basket of delights about growing up, where the world is full of promise, and just the right balance is struck between hilarity, adventure and pathos. Not to be overlooked.
Known as Microbe by his enemies (small and pestilent), Daniel (Ange Dargent) is a tousled, blonde fourteen-year-old schoolboy in suburban Versailles who, in an otherwise desultory, solitary life, longs for the unattainable Laura (Diane Besnier). One day, a dark, curly-headed leather-jacketed lad called Theo (Theophile Baquet) arrives at school, sporting a magical, motorized mountain bike with loudspeaker and a control panel emitting sound effects. Theo is an immediate hit with Daniel, but he earns the enmity of the reigning gang of bullies, who label him ‘Gasoline’ because he reeks of the stuff. Each living with neurotic parents who neglect or misunderstand them, the pair long for a summer escape and hit on the idea of going to the Massif Central to find Theo’s old summer camp, peopled by big-breasted cooks. They build a wooden house on wheels, powered by a lawnmower engine – with about the same umph but a little more speed than Alvin Straight’s machine in David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). The house is an ingenious contraption, designed with a flap to hide its wheels when stationary and so fool passing cops. The prospect of pushing their house up steep slopes in the Massif soon becomes daunting, and the lads settle for the Morvan Regional Park in Burgundy, with its barely gentler slopes. Their adventures on the journey populate the rest of the film, by turns hilarious, bizarre, and occasionally distressing. Daniel continues to fantasise about Laura: will she ever reciprocate (and will he be capable of doing so, when the time is right)?
Not since Jan Sverak’s Elementary School (1991) have I encountered such an unaffected, refreshing film about the tender vicissitudes of budding youth. Gondry’s film evidently is based on autobiographical material (he was brought up in Versailles), and manages to be highly imaginative whilst remaining firmly grounded in the reality of boyish life. Fantasy moments and the theatrical house-on-wheels clinch the realization of an imaginary world of the sort often constructed by unloved children. This poignancy of the imaginative world legitimizes the more improbable aspects of the story, and the boys’ odyssey staves off the potential for loneliness through comradely inventiveness and adventure. The usual themes are all here, beginning with the neuroses of parents and other adults (the sort of awful adults that rescue Beavis and Butthead from the merely vacuous).
Daniel’s mother, Marie-Therese (a superb vignette from Audrey Tautou), is a neurotic spiritualist with no understanding of the sensitivities of youth, arguing that the drawings of nude women that Daniel has hidden under his bed, and which she has found and exposed, would be more deserving of display in the local art gallery than the punk drawings he has managed to get exhibited. In her depression, she demands the comfort of her children, a familiar sort of parental seeking after validation, in the face (in this case) of an absent husband – who, too, is absent as a father for Daniel. The scope for emotional confusion is great. Theo’s parents are lumpen and unfeeling, his father an anxious brute and his mother a mordant, joyless victim (the families represent a familiar opposition of anaemic, unfeeling well-to-do parents and full-blooded but brutalized blue-collar types). Older siblings come into the mix too, and, hilariously, Daniel torments his brother’s punk friends by firing peas at them through a concealed hole in the wall (Mum, of course, cannot fathom why he has made this hole). All that is missing are oppressive, cruel schoolteachers.
Most charmingly, the film catches the boys and their peers at a time in their young lives when smart phones, tablets and laptops have not yet enslaved them. In a moment of delightful symbolism, Daniel digs a latrine in the woods and his mobile phone accidentally drops into it, to be covered inadvertently with turds and toilet paper. Why extricate it? – it ties the boys to home. The boys are free to get on with their nuts-and-bolts stuff, for Microbe and Gasoline are makers, and we celebrate their inventiveness.
In time-honoured fashion of boys’ own sagas, the lads encounter a rich collection of bizarre characters, including a dentist and his wife whose children have flown the coop, and who are so lonely that they’re not averse to a bit of kidnapping; and a Korean American football team upon whom the boys hone their slick negotiating skills. In a Korean brothel, Daniel gets the first instalment of the haircut that will make him a man, rescuing him from the ‘Danielle’ that he believes his long, blonde locks have made him – and there are lessons to be learned about veracity versus abstraction in art. Home, school and travel reveal glimpses of the French psyche, by no means all of which are edifying. (The film stops miles short of the satire of Bruno Dumont’s recent P’tit Quinquin , incidentally, another tale of French children, which is decidedly the obverse of the essentially joyous world of Microbe and Gasoline.)
The love of Daniel for Laura is handled sensitively and without fuss, and is all the more poignant for it, the uphill struggle of this apparently stillborn romance and its possibilities captured with not a little pathos at the very end, as the elan and newfound maturity of the returning Daniel turns the tables of longing. Daniel’s fantasies about Laura are part of the magical fabric of the film (as are other daydreams which signal moments of fear and apprehension in his life). Daniel is certainly the leading light, notwithstanding Theo’s partnering flamboyance; sombre undertones stem from Daniel’s penchant for imaginative separation and narcissism: Theo upbraids Daniel momentarily for his insularity, and for not keeping him in mind.
Microbe and Gasoline is an outstanding example of how conventional narrative and the joy of simple storytelling in the hands of a master of filmmaking can work in a tale that just wants to be fun. Gondry has achieved something that somehow seems rare these days: a heartfelt basket of delights about growing up, where the world is full of promise, and just the right balance is struck between hilarity, adventure and pathos (that P’tit Quinquin shows another side of childhood that is terrifyingly dark is a complement – and not an opposition – to Gondry’s happy film). The imagination may be running high as the house-on-wheels takes to the road, but its symbolism seems entirely right in terms of the imaginative world of two boys upon whom love has not been showered in abundance.
I am grateful to my son Alasdair for his insights into this film.