The latest from handmade movie wizard Michel Gondry is a modest, delightful Boy's Own adventure, highly recommended for anyone who spent their adolescence sketching cartoon boobs when they should have been doing their homework.
Microbe & Gasoil (2015, France) written & directed by Michel Gondry / starring Théophile Baquet, Ange Dargent, Diane Besnier, Audrey Tautou / cinematography by Laurant Brunet / music by Jean-Claude Vannier / companies: Partizan, Studio Canal
How is it that the latest release from Michel Gondry managed to slip into UK cinemas, steal a handful of crisps, then silently slip back out without anyone noticing? It’s in cases like these that the staggered programming of regional indie cinemas (such as Chichester's New Park Cinema in my home county of West Sussex) can give cinephiles a valuable last chance to see a diamond in the rough on the big screen. That there was next to no word-of-mouth buzz around Microbe & Gasoil is a crying shame, as it is a bitter-sweet coming-of-age comedy that acts as a balm to soothe the wounds inflicted by overblown, self-serious blockbusters that hang about the multiplexes, waiting to beat up teenagers for their pocket money.
Weedy, slightly effeminate Daniel (dubbed “Microbe” by the bullies at school) is a 14-year-old with a talent for drawing, a crush on a cute girl and no male friends at school. He forms an immediate bond with confident, individualistic transfer student Théo (dubbed “Gasoil” for the constant reek of auto repair shops on his loud red jacket). Whilst taking scrap metal to the local yard for Théo’s brutish father, the boys come across an old lawnmower engine and devise a plan to construct their own car and go in search of a campground in Auvergne, where Théo holidayed as a kid and first discovered the special je-ne-sais-quoi of women with big breasts. Undeterred by the local authorities’ insistence that their vehicle is not roadworthy, the boys disguise their car as a garden shed for ease of evading the police on the road. Along the way Théo and Daniel encounter a creepy dentist, Korean gangsters, Romany gypsies and a chance for Daniel to take another run at winning the affections of the girl that snubbed him at the start of the summer.
Microbe & Gasoil is a classic entry in the vulgar but lovable genre of boys-own adventures - one that seemed to have all but dyed-out in the 21st Century. The only recent parallel that springs to mind is Wes Andersson’s much more stylised Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which occupies a similar genre territory, only with little intention of being as relatable for younger viewers as Gondry’s latest. Like Jan Svĕrák’s feel-good Czech classic Elementary School (1991), this film is not family-friendly in its language and subject matter yet it is designed to be as suitable for a 14-year-old boy as it is for grown men that still fondly remember their own follies and fantasies at that age.
Gondry does not go out of his way to resist the tropes of the coming of age genre – in fact he frequently mines them for the film's most frank and effective emotional beats. Daniel grew up in a comfortable home yet suffers from low self-esteem and the insecurities of his absent parents, whilst Théo’s chaotic household is filled with stimulating bric-à-brac but tainted by his parents constantly tearing him down. Daniel needs Théo’s help to become a young man who is sure of himself but he is also a narcissist, who does little to find out about his friend’s inner life. Microbe & Gasoil is a comedy of simple pleasures, delivered with impeccable timing and pitch-perfect performances from newcomers Théophile Baquet and Agne Dargent.
Gondry doesn't feel the need for an overabundance of bawdy, gross-out humour and his conventional narrative is refreshingly old-fashioned and notable for its lack of smart phones, social media or any glowing screens in the boys’ lives. Their enthusiasm is for handmade, hand drawn entertainment of their own making. Gondry also finds an assertive way to get rid of most screenwriters’ worst enemy: the mobile phone. A few miles outside his home of Versailles, Daniel goes to take a dump in the woods and his phone quite innocently slips out of his pocket. There’s a craftsman’s lack of contrivance in the way Gondry handles such a functional scene but also a welcome lack of diplomacy in his decision to have Daniel shit on the phone and bury it, rather than clean it up and keep it. Getting rid of such a troublesome device allows the adventure to continue beyond the reach of meddlesome parental concerns.
The darker edge to the two boys’ strained relationships with the useless adults that surround them lends weight without dampening the adventure and Gondry’s script and direction are particularly sensitive to the authentic, poignant arc of Daniel’s object of desire, Laura (Diane Besniet). Jean-Claude Vannier’s unintrusive score exemplifies the sweet-but-scruffy, timid-but-savvy tone of this world quite succinctly. Modest in scope, with no need for sentimentality to achieve its depth, the score never cranks itself up to 11 and never butts in where it’s not wanted. Another filmmaker might have opted for a loud pop soundtrack of raucous riffs and thumping beats to hammer home the excitement and freedom of two teens on the open road. Gondry could probably knock such a mix together in his sleep but he chooses to let his actors and the subtle hand of Elise Fievet’s film editing amp up the excitement, rather than exaggerate it with pop hits beloved of older adolescents. By turning out such an unabashedly sweet and restrained film as Microbe & Gasoil Gondry reminds us of the value of his handmade aesthetic and the need for filmmakers to celebrate play alongside the more painful trials of growing up.