Unlike the commercialisation of the literary short forms of poetry, the short story and novella, cinema has struggled to commercialise the short film. For want of a better word, French filmmaker Michel Gondry is more of a literary filmmaker, whose feature films aren’t his bread and butter.
In the ten years since the release of his last feature, Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours, 2013), he has been occupied by short films, music videos, and episodic series. Yet it still feels strange that we’ve had to wait a decade for his next feature. At long last, The Book of Solutions (Le livre des solutions, 2023), marks the end of our wait. It’s filled with the filmmaker’s familiar creative candour and quirky charm, that can endear as much as detract audiences.
The story centres on Marc (Pierre Niney), a filmmaker who is told by his film’s backers, “Your movie is ugly and grey, we have to recover our investment”. Absconding with the footage, Marc and his trusted crew members make the drive to his aunt Denise’s (Françoise Lebrun) house, where he can finish the film. However, caught in a free-flowing stream of creative ideas, the film’s end gets further away.
Based on Gondry’s autobiographical experience of having too many ideas filling his mind when it came to editing one of his films, The Book of Solutions is a memory or act of remembering. Not everyone will be aware of this going into the film. Some audiences will see it as pure drama and imagination, whereas others will be unsure where the line is between the director’s own memories and Marc’s quirky procrastination.
“By tackling the fundamental principles of creativity, I was sinking into the darkness of incomprehension. That was the price to pay. Only my inspiration would bring me into the light. I could only rely on myself”, says Marc. The endless stream of ideas that fill his mind after he comes off his meds can be viewed as him procrastinating but also a creative fervour, pushing his vision shy of breaking point.
The Book of Solutions’ tension stems from the love Marc’s crew has for him. He leaves them bewildered, at a loss for words, like when he tells Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), his long-suffering editor that she’ll edit again, in reverse – starting at the end and finishing with the opening shot. That way, each scene is a flashback of a flashback. Or deciding to record the film ‘s music with an orchestra, but without a score and conducting it himself. Other times his fiery temper, and his obsessive, even dogmatic nature pushes them away. The film essentially becomes a story about a dysfunctional family, only instead of it being a traditional family, it’s a film crew on the run from their producers.
It’s these little guises that creates a warm affection for the film. Maybe Marc has grandiose notions of the creative process and he’s trying to play the part. He’s a nod not only to Gondry’s autobiographical experiences, but to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who sees the world from a unique point-of-view. Or maybe he’s similar to Michael Douglas’ Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys (Hanson, 2000), a writer unable to finish his second novel. Just as the end of Grady’s book gets further away, so does Marc’s film, albeit for different reasons. They’re both procrastinators, who can claim that they’re not because of the extracurricular drama, but even when they can sit down to work, the endings of their respective stories reach far out in front.
The Book of Solutions effuses charm, earning the goodwill of its audience. A delightfully entertaining film, think less laugh out loud funny and instead affectionate chuckles, along with a rolling of the eyes at a unique character’s zany ideas. One that stands out is what he calls the ‘second gear rule’ – staying in second gear on a mountain road, because there are no accidents in second gear. He claims this will save millions of lives.
There are moments where we believe he has gone over the edge, only for it to then appear there’s method to his madness. The audience are left unsure what to make of Marc – is he a radical genius or an artist lost in the river of his own imagination? Just as he’s trying to find his film, the audience are trying to figure out who he is and separate the functional from the dysfunction.
In the spirit of Gondry, reality and dream overlap, not allowing reality to impede imagination. It creates an interesting spontaneity where ideas and the moment are allowed to infuse the film’s reality with distorted kinks, creating a world within a world. Among the many potential nods or coincidental connections, The Book of Solutions is perhaps a complementary piece to François Truffaut’s Day For Night (La nuit américaine, 1973), which is also about a director trying to complete his film. Whereas Truffaut stays on the surface to deal with the complexities of the interpersonal relationships of the characters, Gondry burrows deeper into the internal imagination of the filmmaker.
The Book of Solutions premiered in the Rebels With a Cause Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. Also showing at REC Tarragona.