When the film you’ve always wanted to make gets shut down by unconvinced producers, you have two choices: you still try to make it, or you make it. This is the case for Marc (Pierre Niney), an impressionable thirtysomething filmmaker, in Michel Gondry’sThe Book of Solutions. In an attempt to get his bearings, the bipolar Marc decides to get off his meds and take all the footage (plus his small crew) to his aunt’s house in the beautiful French countryside in the hope of finishing the film on his terms. The creative juices are flowing, but the work is arduous: how can one keep a seemingly doomed project together when everything is falling apart?

Gondry has retained the playful tone and occasional despair found in his equally whimsical Mood Indigo and The Science of Sleep, even as his newest is, by comparison, more rooted in the realities of film production and mental illness. Niney plays a typified neurotic male auteur––a stand-in for Gondry himself, and this personal touch pays off in the sympathy audiences cannot help feeling for Marc. The film is also a tribute to the director’s own aunt Suzette, imagined here as the patient Denise (Françoise Lebrun), the guiding light and moral corrective who’s there to rein Marc in and make sure he picks up the pieces after yet another emotional episode. With her help, he learns to balance megalomania, egoism, and acceptance.

The main conceit is a gamble: would you be more inclined to condemn Marc and find his spiraling increasingly more exasperating, or would you accept him as he is and root for him through the convoluted process of creation? The characters also face the same dilemma, and provide us with example ways of dealing with Marc’s compulsions: some, like his creative partner Max (Vincent Elbaz), remain sober and walk away; others, like his editor Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), try their best to be supportive and still eventually give up. Navigating the tumultuous process of making a film is hard and often comic, but The Book of Solutions is careful enough not to reduce it to caricature. On the contrary, it preserves the ineffable magic of creation, even if that comes at the expense of the formal rigor we’d usually associate with the resourceful French director. 

This is not to say there’s a lack of the typical Gondry imagination: he and cinematographer Laurent Brunet (who also shot 2015’s Microbe & Gasoline) make room for quirky inventions––e.g. an edit-suite-truck where you cut by honking the horn, and the eponymous “Book of Solutions.” The latter is Marc’s abandoned project: a notebook with a title and only empty pages which are to be filled with wisdom and lessons he acquires during production. These “solutions” are probably the sweetest part of the film, sourced in the most curious of circumstances and anchoring our protagonist on his road to self-affirmation, to becoming more likable and empathetic. 

The Book of Solutions uses fictionalization as means to make sense of a process so complex and on so many levels: from the conception of a project to communicating it and trusting others with it. All of these obstacles often get brushed away in films about filmmaking, the focus falling on the practical difficulties of making a movie. More often this is where the comedy is to be found. But Gondry is charitable––to a large extent from the autobiographical closeness between him and the character––but we mustn’t forget that he has always been generous as a writer-director. His characters are so unabashedly themselves––quirks, nooks, crannies––that one can only admire them. Whether Marc is a genius or just a devoted, hard-working regular person in difficult circumstances doesn’t really matter. There is always space in the viewer’s heart for the underdog, even if he is an acclaimed (fictional) French director.

The Book of Solutions premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: C+

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