If you’ve ever wondered when it was that Michel Gondry, the gifted French director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” became the world’s most annoying filmmaker, you might say the answer is, “He always was.” Yet no one, including me, quite thinks of him that way. That’s because the few works of his that have come to prominence possess a special combination of facility and charm. I adore “Eternal Sunshine,” a virtuoso movie that bends your brain and breaks your heart at the same time. You might simply choose to characterize it as the masterpiece of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but the truth is that Gondry directed it — the leaps in time, the emotionally convulsive performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet — with a masterful sense of play and gravitational control.
I’ve always heard that the script Kaufman originally turned in was twice as complicated, and that it was Gondry who had the wisdom to work with him to prune it down. In 2004, when “Eternal Sunshine” was released, it was only Gondry’s second feature as a director, and it felt, from there, like he could do anything. What he did, instead, was to implode into a confetti burst of featherweight absurdist quirk.
“The Book of Solutions,” which premiered last month at the Cannes Film Festival, is Gondry’s first feature in eight years, and it’s possibly the worst movie he has ever made. Yet like his other duds, it’s marked by a kind of hermetic mischievous self-love. Gondry has never lost his craft as a filmmaker (this is the director who, back in his music-video and TV-commercial days, invented bullet-time three years before “The Matrix”), and “The Book of Solutions” spins out its story with the same flaky droll Teflon confidence that has marked such top-heavy-with-their-own-caprice Gondry comedies as the befuddled video-store reverie “Be Kind Rewind” (2008), the surrealist romantic tragedy “Mood Indigo” (2013), the two-kids-on-a-road-trip-across-France drama “Microbe and Gasoline” (2015), or the film that marked the flameout of his American studio career, his truly terrible 2011 reimagining of “The Green Hornet” (remember? Seth Rogan played the Green Hornet, which turned out to be a big “nope”).
Because “Eternal Sunshine” is such a great and justly famous movie, and because Gondry was a true wizard of music video (which is why he worked with everyone from Björk to the White Stripes to Lenny Kravitz to Belinda Carlisle to Donald Fagen to Sinéad O’Connor to Malcolm McLaren to the Rolling Stones to Daft Punk to Sheryl Crowe to Radiohead), those achievements have overshadowed what turns out to be the essential Gondry aesthetic. The rest of his movies are crockpot casseroles of flaked-out whimsy, retro nostalgia, and more flaked-out whimsy. They tend to feature dreamers who are also losers, technological contraptions that have a rickety DIY quality, all of it slathered in…more whimsy.
What places “The Book of Solutions” in its own special category of Gondry dud is that the movie is about a film director, one who’s making a movie that looks so fuzzy and precious that it’s as if the film we’re watching were trying to lift the Gondry whimsy to a new level of meta-annoyance. In the opening scene, the director, Marc (Pierre Niney), a bearded 30ish legend in his own mind, meets with the executives at the independent studio that is funding his latest project. The film he’s making is 4 hours and 7 minutes long, but he already knows it’s a masterpiece. He assaults everyone there with his obnoxious ideas for it, to the point that when the studio suit in charge shoots him down, we can’t help but side with the suit. Marc, shattered by the response, goes out to have a cigarette — except he doesn’t smoke. He’s really hustling down to the editing suite so that he can steal the film, along with the editing equipment, and stop the studio from ruining his “vision.”
Gondry shoots all of this with an acerbic satirical touch that seems, for a while, to leave the movie open to the possibility that it might be mocking its hero. Except that Gondry never really sticks with anyone else’s point-of-view; he likes Marc too much to skewer him. Marc and his editor, Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), head for the village of Cevannes, where they hole up in the country house of Marc’s Aunt Denise (Françoise Lebrun). There, Marc plans to complete the film on his own grandiose terms.
A movie about the making a movie can be an irresistible genre, but that’s not really what “The Book of Solutions” is. Gondry places Marc, in all his impish self-regard, front and center, so that we get to spend an inordinate amount of time drinking in how much he seems like the facile Zoomer descendent of Jean-Pierre Léaud — an actor we think of as a giant (and is), though Léaud, in the 1970s, played more than his share of obnoxious disaffected narcissistic brats. Pierre Niney, the French-Belgian actor who is best known for portraying Yves Saint Laurent in the 2014 French biopic of the same name (it won him the César for best actor), takes off from there. As Marc, he’s like the Léaud of “Day for Night” downgraded to a doofus irritant, with thin curled lips and almond eyes that take in everything but react to nothing. All that exists for Marc is what’s in his own noggin.
The character, as presented, is a liar, an abuser, and a flyweight sociopathic pest. We hear, in voiceover, his judgments of other people, which tend to be megalomaniacal dismissals. Everyone is full of it except for him. Other characters swing in for a moment or two, like the local who lets Marc borrow his recording studio, the slacker mayor, or the assistant editor who coughs compulsively. Gondry, as always, is into doohickeys, contraptions, and finding low-tech ways to do high-tech things. Marc keeps writing down his Zen-clever-idiotic ideas (“stay in second gear”), compiling them into something he calls The Book of Solutions. As soon as we hear the name of Sting mentioned, we know, as surely as the law of Chekhov’s Gun, that Sting will be popping in for a cameo.
How trifling, how tedious, is “The Book of Solutions”? Let me put it this way: At the showing of the film I attended in Cannes, the woman next to me was looking at stuff on her phone…and no one around her bothered to complain! After a while, your principal reaction to Marc’s faux-adorable imperviousness may be that you want to slap his gawky, staring-bird face. Yet he’s no more deluded, in his way, than Michel Gondry, a maverick of talent who can somehow convince himself that we’re going to find a character — or a movie — like this one irresistible. He needs to rejoin the real world and stop basking in his own eternal sunshine.