Suzette Gondry tells her nephew Michel – yes, that Michel Gondry – that the school she tries to visit isn’t her school anymore. But she doesn’t say this in a mournful tone but rather in a matter of fact one. Even if they both can’t take their viewers into one of the schools she used to teach at, there’s still enough material in Michel’s film L’Épine dans le cœur, or The Thorn in The Heart. It takes a while for the fascinating parts to surface, but Suzette is just that. During the 1960s, she lived in rural and suburban Paris, juggling both teaching and being a mother to her children. After that ‘failed’ visit, she goes up to a hilly portion of the rural areas, eventually arriving at a ruins where she taught Algerian children.
Suzette is the matriarch of one literal family and more metaphorical ones. The way she talks about the Algerian children, some of them adults now, is progressive. She makes me feel like she is, as the Gen Z-ers say these days, a real one. The political climate today roots for her. As a queer person of colour who went to one regressive Catholic school after another, I wish I had more teachers like her. She’s better than some of the ones that make me see the profession in grayer terms. But enough about me, Michel’s 60/40 in depicting her life as he switches from whatever camera this is to older stock. Some of the regular scenes are baffling though. For example there’s a take of a door that he mixes with Suzette’s audio that feels long.
There’s less magic in The Thorn in The Heart than in Michel’s other work but the magic is still there. Michel incorporates Super 8 footage of things like his cousin and Suzette’s son Jean-Yves’s footage of family reunions. Those earlier ones are more whimsical than the contemporary digital versions that Michel shot. Other footage includes the school trips in Le Vigan where Suzette organizes swimming trips for her students. It’s a thing that the school board eventually started incorporating as yearly traditions. The Thorn eventually gets into her most morally ambiguous aspect, even if the doc makes that part feel pretty clean. That aspect, and I hope I don’t get into spoilers, is her regrets in the minor ways she dealt with Jean-Guy. But the doc gives this assessment of her as a mostly good person and I can’t help but agree.
The Thorn in The Heart comes soon on OVID.