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Michel Gondry on His New Film, Women Who Become Furniture, and Fearing for His Life

This week, Michel Gondry returns to theaters with a classic tale: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl’s flesh melts away, girl’s body morphs into a piece of furniture. The plot doesn’t scream “romantic comedy,” but then, we’re talking about France’s premiere magical realist here. With Interior Design — one of three shorts by different directors that comprise the new tryptic Tokyo!, which opened Friday — Gondry has adapted writer Gabrielle Bell’s cult comic book Cecil and Jordan in New York into a love story that’s surreal but still kind of sweet. It follows a young couple that moves to Tokyo to follow their ambitions: The boy wants to be a filmmaker, and the girl … well, she doesn’t really know what she wants, until she wakes up one morning and discovers she’s turned into a chair. Recently at the Soho Grand, Gondry spoke to us about Interior Design, and though he refused to discuss his future projects (like The Green Hornet!) he did reveal his fear of being killed by his collaborator, Bell.

How did you and Gabrielle come up with the idea of a woman turning into a chair? It sounds like something from a dream.
I liked Gabrielle’s comics, so I invited her and her boyfriend to spend some time with my son and me, and one time, we started to imagine doing a play where people turn into objects. In the first act, there would be a mother who neglects her own daughter, so the daughter slowly fades into the background and turns into a chair. But then, in the second act, you look all around her, and you notice that all the other furniture are also humans. There would be a man giving you different kinds of communication, and he would be the television, and there would be a man answering questions, and he would be a telephone, and there would be a man acting as the door. And then you find out that all the other people acting as the furniture are actually kids who were neglected by their own parents, and they would all tell their stories about how they became that object. I hired two guys to write the screenplay, but they took the idea too far away from the original idea. So when the Tokyo! project came, I thought, this is perfect. But we might still do the play someday.

Interior Design was adapted from Gabrielle’s comic, which was set in New York. Why did you feel that this story needed to be told in Tokyo?
Because of the housing situation there; it makes it difficult to be ambitious. It’s very difficult to find an apartment or a job in Tokyo. There’s a line in the beginning of the movie where a woman says, “The bigger your office is, the smaller your apartment.” That reflects how, in Japan, work is so much more important that other parts of your life. The bigger your work, the smaller your life. That’s why a guy in the movie makes a joke and says, “Well, then you should work for a smaller company, because then you’d have a bigger apartment.”

When she turns into the chair, she seems to have mixed feelings about it. She says, “I’ve never felt so useful,” but the idea of being “useful” feels sad, like it’s more utilitarian than creative.
Yes, that’s true. It’s full of ambiguity. Gabrielle even wanted to add one last line after that: “I’m looking forward to what happens next.” She imagined that the chair would just keep moving from place to place. I was thinking of the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man, how the character resigns himself to the idea that he’s just going to keep getting smaller and smaller and he just has to say, okay, I’m ready for the adventure. Because there’s nothing he can do to change it.

One of my favorite parts of Interior Design is the film the boyfriend’s making. There’s a character in it who looks old when she’s lit in a certain way, and when she’s lit in a different way, she looks young again. Where did you get that idea?
I got it from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. It was shot in black-and-white, so they used green and red makeup, one to make him look smooth and young and one to make him look wrinkled and old. By changing the filter on the camera to go between green to red, they could morph the character from young to old. Or sometimes, they gave it the effect of a double image, like old and young at the same time.

You’ve said that Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion was a big influence on Interior Design. Both Polanski’s heroine and yours are introspective young women who are terrified of undertaking adult responsibilities. And that makes them innocent and beautiful, but it also isolates them.
Gabrielle actually did a comic book of Repulsion, so it’s part of her universe. It’s funny that you ask, because I think there’s a connection between Gabrielle and this Repulsion character. [Editor’s note: The heroine in Polanski’s film ends up killing a man.] Once I went to see a therapist with Gabrielle, and she was talking and talking and talking, and the therapist said, “Gabrielle, did you ever think of trying to kill yourself?” And Gabrielle said, “No.” And I said, “Ask her if she’s ever thought of killing somebody else — ME!” [Laughs.] When you work with Gabrielle, you never know what will happen.

Photo: Patrick McMullan