Microbe and Gasoline (2015) follows two young boys as they build a car that looks like a house and drive it on an epic trip across France. Speaking at the New York Film Festival 2015, Gondry acknowledged that many scenes of the film come from his own childhood. The friendship between budding artist Daniel (Ange Dargent) and mechanical genius Théo (Théophile Baquet) recreates Gondry’s own most treasured friendship from that time. “I tried to remember what was significant, even the elements of both our lives that explained the reason why my friend and I both had this bond,” Gondry said. Daniel (given the derogatory nickname “Microbe” for his size by boys at school) is based on Gondry; he is talented, shy, and often mistaken for a girl due to his long hair. Théo (nicknamed “Gasoline” for his obsession with creating mechanical wonders out of scrapyard discoveries) is boisterously self-assured and non-conformist. The film is at once a fond and funny remembrance of the simple ecstasies of youth, a sensitive reliving of the painful awkwardness of adolescence, and a wistful expression of regret for the unrealized dreams of our past selves.
Many of the film’s scenes are lifted directly from Gondry’s childhood, although the chronology of events is compressed, whereas in reality they happened over five to ten years. Just as only Théo attends Daniel’s art exhibition in the film, only one friend came to Gondry’s first art exhibition, and Gondry’s relationship with his sensitive, over-attentive mother was very close to Daniel’s. Gondry noted that he was never called “Microbe,” but he was nicknamed the “Musselled Shrimp.” Gondry and his young friend didn’t go so far as building the car with its house exterior, but they dreamed of doing so: “All the building of the car and the house, that's from my imagination. But it's true we wanted to build the car and go across France.”
In addition to living out the lost dream of driving the home-made car across France, Microbe and Gasoline makes another significant change to Gondry’s story: the film is set in the present day, whereas Gondry’s childhood events occurred in the mid-1970’s. Gondry related at NYFF that he was not tempted to set the film in the past: “I didn't want to do a period movie. I am scared of period or past movies because you spend a lot of the production and the energy and the attention on the recreation of a period of time. I think the story could happen at any time.”
At the same time, Microbe and Gasoline comes across as proudly old-fashioned and stands against the forward march of new technology. In one scene, early on the road trip, Daniel accidentally drops his iPhone into a hole in the ground and relieves his bowels over it. Discovering his mistake, Daniel shrugs and leaves the phone behind. This rather literal expression of Gondry’s opinion of smartphones "is more how I feel now,” the director explained. “But I remember, my friend and I, we were against what was true commercial... very commercial movies. So [because Daniel and Théo continue that anti-commercial streak], they are a little old-fashioned, even though it's happening now.”
Gondry regretted that he has lost touch with the best friend who inspired Théo, whom he last saw in ’83 in Paris. “He told me he was Madame PiPi [a woman who collects coins in the bathroom] in this club, that was like a big gay club in the eighties,” Gondry said, adding that he did not know if this was truth or invention. “I saw his picture on the net, but there was no way to contact him.”
Meanwhile, Gondry has stayed good friends with the real-life version of Laura, Daniel’s crush in Microbe and Gasoline, but the woman later dated his brother: “It was a catastrophe. Not very long—enough to break my heart.” In Microbe and Gasoline, Laura is Daniel’s obsession, but she treats him as no more than a friend. In the final scene, Laura suddenly sees Daniel in a romantic light, although the boy fails to notice. This, too, came from reality. “She told me 20 years later that she had a crush on me, the year after, when we were not in touch anymore,” Gondry said. “20 years later…I was not so attracted to her. I thought, you should have let me know at the time. It's a bit of a disappointment.”
Perhaps the most interesting question that arises, in light of Gondry’s discussion of autobiographical recreation, is why he chose this particular story to tell about himself as a young man and a forming artist. The episode of his boyhood friendship was evidently a landmark moment in Gondry’s life, while the dream of the road-trip-never-taken stayed with the director as a poignant missed opportunity. The film is likewise a mix of celebration and melancholy. The purity of the boys’ friendship is uplifting and joyful, yet the film ends with their separation brought on by the intrusion of too much reality (the death of Théo’s mom and Daniel’s return to a school full of terrible boys). In its joyful escape and downbeat conclusion, Microbe and Gasoline is an ode to the high hopes of childhood that fade and get lost over the years. Through his comments about Laura, too, Gondry subtly urges us to take advantage of the moment, in the moment, and know that these chances will pass all too quickly.
In building the house-car and sending these two young characters on a rough-and-tumble adventure across France, Gondry uses his art as a substitute or a fulfillment of the adventure he wishes he took. Microbe and Gasoline is Gondry’s means of satisfying a deep, lingering desire for what could have been. “We had this project, the dream, to do this trip we didn't take in real life,” Gondry said. “I wanted to do the film to achieve this dream.”
Gondry’s statement suggests that film, and art in general, can be a consolation for what we never lived and missed in our realities. Through the realized imagination of artistic expression, we have the rare opportunity to satisfy the trips we still need, in some form, to take—even after it’s too late.