Working with considerably more restraint than he's brought to his narrative films, Michel Gondry turns to family matters in his new documentary. "The Thorn in the Heart" is closer to "The Science of Sleep" than to the stirring "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": It's a curiously uninvolving film, even though — or perhaps because — the family in question is the filmmaker's own. His portrait of his aunt Suzette Gondry, her 30-odd-year teaching career and uneasy relationship with her son, is brimming with affection and beautifully shot, but it builds a flimsy case for why it matters.
Gondry interweaves home movies and still photos with a present-day road trip. The small crew — sometimes part of the onscreen action — films matriarch Suzette's return to the villages and rural towns where she taught. White-haired and full of vigor, she visits with former colleagues and students. "It doesn't bother me to hear that I was mean," she says after one woman recalls, with a smile, being grabbed by her hair.
This is a film of gentle recriminations, which might be closer to most people's reality than fashionably exaggerated dysfunction. Yet Gondry leaves things at their gentle surface. Suzette bristles around her son, Jean-Yves, and he's drawn out, just barely, about the difficulty of being his mother's pupil and, later, his father's employee. The Super 8 movies he shot as a youth are key to the film's poetry of nostalgia.