It’s been a long time since Michel Gondry’s last film (and maybe even longer since you’ve seen one), but at least the director’s new semi-autobiographical comedy of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” offers a fun – if also fraught and occasionally troubling – explanation of why it took him eight years to follow “Microbe & Gasoline”.
In “The Book of Solutions,” Pierre Niney plays Marc, an obvious replacement for Gondry who is immersed in post-production on a $5 million film that looks an awful lot like Gondry’s “Mood Indigo.” And just as Gondry did with that surreal 2013 romance, which was maligned for its messy overabundance of rich ideas, Marc is struggling to find a coherent form for his oeuvre.
“Anyone, Everyone” already sounds worryingly open and ambitious based on the title alone, and doesn’t exactly instill confidence in Marc’s backers when he reveals he’s still tweaking the fifth act. He tells them he needs to go out for a cigarette, but in reality, Marc plans to run downstairs to his office, steal all the hard drives, and flee with them to his aunt’s house in the Cevennes, the same house where Gondry walked away with ‘Mood Indigo’ – where he can re-edit the film as he pleases. Or, apparently, where he literally will Nothing other instead of finishing the movie he can’t watch.
As one might expect from a quirky and relentlessly imaginative craftsman who is only able to calm his anxious (and apparently neurodivergent) mind when he fumbles around the set, ‘The Book of Solutions’ is not a film about the agony of manufacturing art as much as it is a film about the agony of living with the art you have made. Like Gondry, Marc is animated by the spirit of invention; on the side of the creative process where everything is still liquid and unstable. And like Gondry, Marc is petrified by the next part, when a director is limited to the footage he captured during filming. Of course there’s no end to how you can play with that footage, but there comes a time when a movie starts telling you what it wants to be and revealing sickening truths about who you are for making it.
For Gondry, the most terrifying self-discoveries of all were ultimately the ones he made about himself during the frantic process of trying to avoid whatever “Mood Indigo” might have taught him. In particular, he’s learned that his all-consuming creative mania could be a real drag on the people who love him most, a group that includes both his aunt (the subject of Gondry’s documentary, “The Thorn in My Heart”) and his long-time collaborators.
But if “The Book of Solutions” could occasionally be read as something of a mea culpa, the film is much richer because Gondry conceived it more as an explanation than an apology – even if he is too sensitive to suggest that the “genius ” requires or allows people to be assholes. That begins with Niney’s performance, which is childishly grand in a way that inspires a degree of sympathy for even her most annoying traits about her. Marc’s brain has its drawbacks (who doesn’t?), but his free imagination is also a gift worth appreciating. It’s what got his crew to work with him in the first place, and it’s what makes Gondry’s film about him so much fun to watch.
“The Book of Solutions” is – first and foremost – a high-energy ode to the joys of being possessed by a creative spirit, and the pleasure Gondry takes in telling a light-hearted story driven by pure invention is both palpable and infectious. Yes, we’re a little concerned about Marc’s decision to stop taking his antidepressants, but we’re complicit in wanting to make the rounds. His sweet aunt Denise (a delightful Françoise Lebrun as the loveliest facilitator alive) gives us tacit permission to sit back and enjoy ourselves, even as her faithful editor (Blanche Gardin as Charlotte) and her possibly smitten assistant (Frankie Wallach as Sylvia) I’m not so comfortable.
The craze begins when Marc discovers a leaf with a pinhole perfectly cut into its flesh, allowing him to see the world through a whole new lens. After that, it’s only a matter of time before he makes a feature-length documentary about an ant, comes up with some (flawed) ideas on how to “save millions of lives” by making driving safer, and even agrees to take on the role of mayor of his hometown. aunt. Occasionally, his ideas are seemingly in service of his film’s ending (for example, Marc orders Charlotte to start editing the film backwards, and later arranges a fun jam session with the world-famous music icon he recruits to write the score), but most of the time they are in the service of Never finishing his film.
Most telling of these episodic flights of fancy finds Marc suggesting that the four-hour “Anyone, Everyone” should include a brightly lit stop-motion short that plays during intermission so that people who need to do pee can find their way to the bathroom without breaking the spell for everyone else. I’ll give you a guess as to exactly what happens halfway through “The Book of Solutions” (which runs a much more reasonable 102 minutes). In a film that’s never shy about its relationship to real life, this self-reflective flourish still functions as a uniquely tacit admission that Marc and his creator are one and the same; Gondry’s film is not alone From the inner workings of his mind, is also the end product.
It’s a shame that “The Book of Solutions” ultimately settles into a traditional story arc – complete with a romance between Marc and an eccentric intern played by Camille Rutherford – because Gondry’s disinterest in telling a story is as obvious as his enthusiasm for everything else. The nature of this project doesn’t allow him to avoid an ending as extreme as his lead character’s (although a third-act shootout almost threatens to bridge the gap), and Gondry’s film ultimately becomes so conflicted between celebrating The Trial of Marc is easygoing that The Book of Solutions itself – the self-help book Marc writes when it becomes easier for him to “solve” all the world’s problems than finish his film – comes off as a mere afterthought.
But this too is another point of synchronicity between Gondry and his alter-ego, and the non-ending with which he leaves us here only cements the impression of an artist who will never be able to change his strips. For the first time in a long time, he’s made a movie that should make everyone happy about it.
“The Book of Solutions” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.