It’s been a while since we’ve seen filmmaker Michel Gondry in what we’d call “full Gondry” mode. After his amazing breakthrough, the endearing romantic tragicomedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he’s made attempts at cult/commercial appeal (Be Kind, Rewind), mainstream blockbusting (the grossly underrated Green Hornet) and a few reasonable reminders of his eccentric penchant (The Science of Sleep,The We and the I).
There have even been a few fascinating documentaries (The Thorn in the Heart, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?) thrown in for good measure. Now, the undeniable visualist is back with an adaptation of Boris Vian’s highly experimental 1947 novel Froth of the Daydream (here retitled Mood Indigo). Telling a simplistic tale in a highly surrealistic manner, it would seem right up Gondry’s style over substance alley. And it is. Magnificently so.
Colin (Romain Duras) is a rich jetsetter living in comfort with a personal chef named Nicolas (Omar Sy), a philosophy loving best buddy named Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and a super-intelligent mouse sidekick (Sacha Bourdo). Everyone seems to be in love but him, making his otherwise fanciful days a bit… lacking.
He meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou) at a party and is immediately smitten. They have a whirlwind courtship and eventually marry. During the honeymoon, Chloe becomes “infected” with a flower. She is diagnosed with a water lily in her lungs, requiring the unusual treatments of a discerning doctor (Michel Gondry). As her condition worsens, Colin sees his one sunny life dim around him. His only hope is to raise enough money to pay for her increasingly expensive and curious “treatments”.
Taking every element of its tale both literally and literarily, Mood Indigo is a wonder to behold. Gondry goes all out here, bringing both the fanciful wonders and dire circumstances of our couple’s doomed affair to breathtaking, eye-popping life. This is not a subtle film, with the celebration and suffering illustrated in carefully considered shades. No, this is a movie where love defies the laws of gravity, pain produces actual household alterations, and tragedy transforms a previously freewheeling playboy into a dull, working drone.
Offering up a primer of influences, Gondry goes Gilliam at the beginning of his picturesque peculiarity, turning to a more darker, Burton like bravado once Chloe becomes ‘terminal’. It all winds up in a whimsical wash of metaphors, allegories, and allusions.
You can see where Gondry is going almost immediately. Colin’s home is actually two high rise apartments interconnected by what appears to be an old trolley car hallway. His personal chef (and occasional confidant) Nicolas prepares dishes with the help of an uniquely “interactive” TV gourmet and a series of mechanical novelties. while he himself spends hours working on inventions like the Pianocktail, a combination bar and musical instrument that creates drinks via the mood and tone of the songs played.
His best friend, Chick, is so obsessed with writer Jean-Sol Partre (get it?) that he spends all his money on any and all variations of the man’s works, including euphoria-inducing pill versions of all the thinker’s important texts. They have fancy meals together, Nicolas utilizes various Rube Goldberg like gadgets (and a Rubix Cube social calendar) to entertain them.
Indeed, for the first hour, the imagination comes flying at the viewer in overwhelming snatches of genius. Nicolas teaches Colin a trendy dance step and Gondry removes the actors legs, supplying puppet like appendages to recreate the slinky, soulful moves. On one of their first dates, our hero commandeers a cloud car, hooked to a massive crane, to give his betrothed a bird’s eye view of Paris.
Colin and Nicolas hate the doorbell, considering it a “pest”, and Gondry utilizes stop motion animation to give the device evil, insect like properties, and when our couple inadvertently agrees to marry, the ceremony becomes a weird go-cart race among intendeds, the winning pair earning the sole privilege of tying the knot. Even Colin’s “story” is shown being literally written by a bunch of typewriting scribes. It may all seem twee and taxing, but Gondry’s gift is in making the fey and the fanciful have real merit.
Once Chloe becomes sick, however, the narrative’s darker side takes over, turning the joys of the first hour into a near haunted house of melancholy. Yet even here, the overflowing sense of cinematic detail demands our attention. It’s almost as if Gondry is saying “you can’t have the good without the bad”, and he treats both statuses with the same optical aplomb.
The industrial wastelands we saw on the fringes take prominence, including factories that seem to have no other purpose than to turn metal into mulch. Colin’s dead-end job is depicted in a series of never ending earth tones and grays. In fact, the film eventually turns entirely monochrome, again announcing Gondry’s obvious motives but also moving us to accept the message within.
At its core, Mood Indigo is a film about how love affects us, both pro and con. Our director here just delivers the subtext with a potent picture book approach.
Of course, there’s a downside to all this excess. In the US, Mood Indigo will be released in a heavily truncated 90-minute version which, based on the two hour plus cut reviewed here, will surely suffer from such a harsh editorial hand. (However, some critics are saying that it’s infinitely better, so the truth remains to be seen). Even though it’s overstuffed with ideas, Gondry’s ability to sustain such magic is what makes this and his movies so special.
Just when we think we can’t handle any more skylarking, along comes a new image and a different take on an established concept and we are once again swept up in Mood Indigo‘s engaging mood. Way back in 1930, Duke Ellington composed the title song as part of a planned radio transmission. It would go on to become a jazz standard. Mood Indigo the film might not turn out to be a cinematic classic, but it does represent an endearing return to form from the elfin efforts of Michel Gondry.