Michel Gondry: No more the dreamer

French director Michel Gondry's new films should see him moving away from his 'journeyman' tag, writes James Mottram
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By his own reckoning, Michel Gondry did not receive the credit due for his first two films, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both were penned by Charlie Kaufman - who won an Oscar for the latter in 2005 - and the Frenchman felt he "became like the journeyman" next to his more celebrated screenwriter. "It was not easy to deal with," he sighs. "It was hard at times." Such a bruised ego is understandable. Chic, witty and innovative, Gondry's work with bands such as Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk has gained him a reputation as one of today's finest music promo directors.

Yet with one film out this week and another next month, the 43-year-old looks set finally to establish himself as one of cinema's leading auteurs. And they couldn't be more different. Dave Chappelle's Block Party is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows the American stand-up comic as he organises a free street-concert in Brooklyn. Then comes The Science of Sleep, an idiosyncratic yet inventive study of a romance, set in Paris, between a student (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his neighbour (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Written by Gondry, it dips into the world of dreams in much the same way Eternal Sunshine dealt with memory (when Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's couple set about erasing their relationship from their minds).

There's no doubt as to why Gainsbourg feels the film is "close to" Kaufman's work, a comparison that sees Gondry screw up his pale face. "Why would she say that?" he sniffs, half-joking. "I'm going to call her and complain." With his curly brown hair, checked shirt and soft manner, Gondry rather resembles his erstwhile scribe. Slightly exasperated, he concedes they share some sensibilities. "Maybe, we have in common certain negative feelings," he says, "and some feelings about relationships and emotion." For all their work's mind-bending metaphysics, both are realists when it comes to the difficulties of intimacy, both films' central couplings dogged by failure.

It's a feeling Gondry knows only too well. The Science of Sleep is inspired by his own "past experiences of rejection" by women. What's more, with the film made in French, outside the studio system and without Kaufman, Gondry was conscious that his first outing as writer-director could suffer from being rebuffed as he once was. "Without Charlie, who was very opinionated on a lot of issues, I felt naked," he says. "I had to go through that and prove to myself I could do it. And I was ready to fail. I'm always ready. It's something I talk about a lot with Charlie. We agree that when we do a project, we must have the chance of failing - otherwise we don't deserve any success."

Gondry's first failure, in many critics' eyes, was Human Nature (2001), a flatly comic fable about a scientist who attempts to civilise a human raised in the wild. "After Human Nature, I didn't know if I had much to say," he says. "A friend told me that I had nothing new in my brain." His answer was to shoot two music videos, including The White Stripes' "Fell In Love With a Girl". A visionary effort that reproduced Jack and Meg White as animated Lego figures, it indicates how childlike Gondry can be (a notion also summed up in the documentary I've Been 12 Forever that accompanies a Director's Series DVD of his early work). It returned him to the homespun feel of his early videos for Oui Oui, the band he played drums for during his art college days. "I found I could be creative again," he admits.

Gondry continued with this approach for many ofThe Science of Sleep's more anarchic sequences, which take us into Bernal's character Stéphane's lovesick dreams. Blending live action with charmingly crude stop-motion, Gondry admits that "this hand-crafted quality was important" to him. "I wanted the animation to look as if Stéphane has done it. In a way, he tries to control his dreams and build them." Much the same can be said of Gondry, whose work frequently boasts an artificial, dreamlike quality, from a man dressed as a yellow and blue beetle crawling through the undergrowth in Oui Oui's "Ma Maison" promo to the magical forest of Björk's "Human Behaviour" video.

All of which makes his work on Dave Chappelle's Block Party all the more surprising. Shooting across three days in September 2004, Gondry trails Chappelle as he coordinates his own dream - putting together a gig featuring such artists as Kanye West, Mos Def and even The Fugees, reuniting for the first time in seven years. "I wanted to show the concert's energy, and it was a good exercise for me to do something I'd never done before," Gondry says. "I wanted to present people on a simple and equal level. In all the videos I have done, and the movies, I have tried to discourage people to bring attitude, which I consider bullshit."

Gondry's musical ties go way back. His grandfather, Constant Martin, is credited as creating an early synthesiser, the Clavioline, and his father ran a music shop in Gondry's home town of Versailles. He gave the young Gondry and his brother a drum kit and bass guitar, respectively, which led them to form a punk band. Yet, pointing out his difficulties with Fugees singer Lauryn Hill's record company, who initially refused to let her perform, Gondry has little time for those who run the music industry. "Every time you deal with music you deal with such an immense number of assholes, who don't care if the project happens or not," he spits. "They have no artistic interest."

Gondry has no idea how his skeletal team managed to marshal so many singers. "All those artists - I don't know how it ended up being possible. They're all nice and friendly but they're not the easiest to deal with. They all have their own entourage ... but as soon as they were together, they were starting to play and it became about music and friendship. And all the bullshit was gone." Pairing an artist such as Gondry with hip-hop's crème de la crème may seem like a match made in hell. While he made Kanye West's "Heard 'Em Say" promo, he is no gun-for-hire, on board solely to massage musicians' egos. "They mostly use videos to promote themselves," he says, "and that makes things difficult."

The film's best moments come from Chappelle himself. Famed in the US for his Emmy-nominated Chappelle's Show, his interactions with the publicseparate the film from a standard concert movie. Most touching is the scene where he promises to take some Central State University students to the gig - the first time many of them had even been to New York. "That was great," says Gondry, who also lives in the city with his son. "A lot of times, we went to Ohio and nothing was happening. But when we saw this band, something clicked. I knew then that I had my story for the film. I knew that if I followed those kids around it would be a great movie. The idea that they would be in a film with David Chappelle, who they adore, was amazing to them."

Statements like these hint at a more calculating side to Gondry. Just ask Welsh actor Rhys Ifans, who appeared in Human Nature. He collaborated with Gondry on "early manifestations" of the script for The Science of Sleep, and even came up with the title. Yet he felt "completely betrayed" when Gondry chose Bernal for the lead. "I considered him a real friend for a number of years," says Ifans. "We worked very closely together and he'd talked about me doing this film many times. I was really hurt, let down and angry." Gondry, who acknowledges Ifans in the credits for discovering the title, simply shrugs. "He helped me out with some stage of the writing, a version that's completely gone now."

With an artist as autocratic as Gondry, casualties such as Ifans are to be expected. Gondry says he relished not having to "listen to all those voices" - from Kaufman to Carrey - who wanted to have their say on Eternal Sunshine. "It's difficult when you have to listen to four different opinions ... Sometimes, you need to communicate with your actors to have an immediate collaboration. If people talk to you before you can talk to your actor, it's very dangerous. It's like when you try to educate your child, and his mother contradicts everything you've said. Then you have no authority." And if Gondry dreams of anything, it's total control.

'Dave Chappelle's Block Party' opens today; 'The Science of Sleep' opens on 28 July