In The Book of Solutions, Michel Gondry’s Heaven Is Other PeopleMovies Reviews Michel Gondry
It’s been a bit since we’ve heard from French auteur Michel Gondry. He last executive produced and directed some episodes of the underrated Showtime show Kidding in 2018, which starred Jim Carrey as a children’s entertainer whose life goes off the rails after a tragedy. Gondry was famously frustrated by working in television since his voice wasn’t the sole driving force of the production, and it’s been known in the industry for 20 years now that the set of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, perhaps Gondry’s best movie, was a bit of a chaotic nightmare for many involved. Gondry’s reputation as an endlessly creative but onerous guy to work with precedes him, so it is a pleasant surprise that his comeback comedy/drama The Book of Solutions is a delightful, refreshing dose of hope.
Marc Becker (Pierre Niney), Gondry’s autobiographical avatar, is a successful but difficult film director who lives mainly inside his own mind; his erratic creative rhythms don’t line up with the patterns of the outside world. Neither does his film match up with the expectations of the suits in charge of overseeing his latest film—they are unhappy with its four-hour-plus runtime and confusing, pretentiously gray tone. Instead of letting the executives finish the film, Marc steals the unfinished files. At his aunt’s house, tucked away in the quaint countryside of the Cévennes (shot in the home of Gondry’s own aunt, to whom the film is dedicated), he determined to finish the project himself.
The people who have opted to help him include Marc’s editor Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), assistant Silvia (Frankie Wallach) and beloved elderly aunt Denise (the legend Françoise Lebrun). These are the women who are at once worried about him and fed up with his unpredictable genius. On the “misunderstood genius” to “overblown egotistical asshole” scale, Marc is sliding toward the asshole side, and quickly. Yes, Marc has hit a roadblock with his film and his friend/producer Mathias (Vincent Elbaz) abandoned him at the exact wrong moment. Yes, he’s stopped taking his psych meds, and he’s desperately distracting himself from the work that needs to be done. Naturally, he starts acting out.
Marc’s myriad zany ideas come to him in the middle of the night while everyone else sleeps, but he insists on waking his friends up anyway. To get all of his ideas out, he starts writing in his “book of solutions,” which recurs throughout the film and provides contextual voiceover for Marc’s odd behavior. When he hires a large orchestra to record the music for his unfinished film with no pre-planned score and then conducts them with his body, something Gondry actually did for Mood Indigo, he can’t figure out why everyone else thinks that’s a bad idea.
While Marc’s crazy schemes usually end up working out somehow, this hurts him more than it helps him. Although the score for the film ends up lovely, he alienates everyone with his brass stubbornness that borders on cruelty. As a way to put off working on his film, Marc starts a thousand smaller projects, something I’m sure Gondry’s audience can relate to, even if Marc isn’t the most likable guy. Mistakenly believing he can control everything around him, Marc pushes his problems down further and further until it all blows up in his face, leaving him catatonically depressed where he used to be manic.
The exact plot mechanics of the final 20 minutes are slapdash at best and saccharine at worst, but the sentiment is true: Marc’s salvation is found through allowing those that love him to love him, and through learning how to treat those people with kindness even when he is frustrated. Hell, in fact, is not other people; it is burrowing too deeply into your own mind, no matter how brilliant you are.
Gabrielle (Camille Rutherford), Silvia’s roommate and Marc’s love interest (what, you thought we were getting a Gondry film without a manic pixie dream girl?) is essentially an angel that swoops in at the eleventh hour. In this instance, Gondry’s penchant for romance gets in his way. He spends so much time building the relationships between Marc and the other three women, and then knocking them down, but they don’t get quite enough time to rebuild since Gondry detours into magical lovey-dovey land. Marc and Gabrielle’s romance is an underdeveloped salve that isn’t really seen in the first half of the film, but is the main focus of the latter half. I would consider myself pretty skilled at suspending my disbelief when necessary, but there is little evidence for Gabrielle’s motivation to pursue Marc, other than the kindness of her heart.
The Book of Solutions is more of a love letter to Gondry’s friends and family who have stuck with him over the years than it is an ode to himself or to his work. There’s a lot of bravery in admitting you have acted like a selfish, arrogant asshole in the past (maybe even in public), and there’s a lot of grace in handling that admission with humorous levity. Gondry maintains his well-documented individual, idiosyncratic style (plenty of cute little animations abound), but The Book of Solutions marks a significant shift. This is the work of a man who has stared straight into his own dark abyss of personal demons, and came out the other side better for it.
Director: Michel Gondry
Writer: Michel Gondry
Starring: Pierre Niney, Blanche Gardin, Frankie Wallach, Françoise Lebrun
Release Date: May 21, 2023 (Cannes Film Festival)
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.