Opening at Sunshine Cinema tomorrow in New York, Michel Gondry’s “Microbe and Gasoline” is a terrific mash-up of a road movie like “Easy Rider” and the teen comedies of John Hughes done in a neo-French New Wave style. Now who can resist that? Microbe is the derisive nickname fellow students gave to Daniel, a 14-year old boy, on account of his height—or lack thereof. Gasoline is the nickname, once again derisive, given to his best friend and classmate Théo, whose clothes have such an odor, the result of tinkering on engines in his father’s junk shop.
The artifice that makes the film such a pleasure is that the dialogue of the two lead 14-year-old male characters is not written as if it came from such youthful mouths. Indeed, for the most part it is like listening to adult sophisticates in the early comic films of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut even though they are rooted in the painful experiences of young teens. This scene is typical:
Gasoline: We are totally underestimated. We can’t blossom in this lousy environment.
Microbe: Things haven’t been going our way lately.
Gasoline: In tough times, keep your head high. Don’t forget, crises produce leaders. DeGaulle in 1940. All looked lost.
Gasoline: Yes, him. We are leaving in the darkest hours of our history, in the middle of a war that seems lost. But we must refuse to surrender.
Microbe: A war?
Gasoline: Our car is like France in 1940. Get it?
Microbe: What are you talking about?
Gasoline: I mean… Let’s finish the car. We can’t give up.
The car is their version of the Harley-Davidson that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode in “Easy Rider”, Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s Hudson in “On the Road”, Huckleberry Finn’s raft or any other car, boat, motorcycle or horse that men and women rode to escape from civilization in a literary genre going back to Don Quixote at least. For Microbe and Gasoline, the car is their means of escape from an oppressive high school and households just like I and so many others endured. Indeed, there is a direct link to the French New Wave that featured the counterparts of these 14-year olds. Gondry hearkens back to Truffaut’s “400 Blows” or Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” but updated for the world we live in now. The one constant is a need to break away from rules and convention.
The car in question is a tiny house-car powered by a 50cc lawnmower engine that Gasoline salvaged from a junkyard his father does business with. It is reminiscent in a way of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the cross-country travels of an elderly WWII veteran on a lawnmower. Like Lynch’s film, the open road gives its subjects an opportunity to interact with a variety of characters including a dentist who invites the two 14-year olds to spend the night. When he asks them to show him their teeth at dinner, they become convinced that he is a psychopath bent on killing them. They jump out of his window in the middle of the night with him chasing him down the road yelling “I am only a dentist”.
“Microbe and Gasoline” was directed by Michel Gondry who has ties to American film-makers such as Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze so naturally you might expect to see a certain amount of arch, postmodernist whimsy in his latest film. It certainly was on display in “The Science of Sleep”, a 2006 film about a man whose dreams interfere with reality that I found terminally annoying. All I can say is that Gondry has found his true voice in “Microbe and Gasoline”, a film that will remind you of your own painful adolescence but will also make you feel like it was worth it in the long run.