I haven’t read reviews for Michel Gondry’s newest flight of fancy, Mood Indigo, but I am willing to bet you that there’s a remark or two—good or bad—about the film’s “whimsy.” Gondry has become, in my mind, a man devoted to stories in which his people cavort in magical lands of their own imagination, tales of grown-ups who have never quite grown up. His work fits in very nicely with the films of Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, all of whom have one or two movies I find sublime, and many, many more that are so saccharine and disingenuous as to make me nearly want to puke.
Director: Michel Gondry
Producer: Luc Bossi
Writers: Luc Bossi, Michel Gondry, Boris Vian (novel)
Cinematographer: Christophe Beaucarne
Editor: Marie-Charlotte Moreau
Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aïssa Maïga, Michel Gondry, Charlotte Le Bon
US Theatrical Release: July 18, 2014
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Mood Indigo is a strange beast, then, because it should have repulsed me. Right out of the gate we have so many of Gondry’s messy handmade special effects (which are, admittedly, gorgeous) that you wonder if the humans wandering amongst the insect doorbells, man-mice, and mechanized cakes are real or robot. Perhaps what makes Mood Indigo work is that it didn’t spring straight from the mind of the man himself—rather, this film is based on a wonderfully ludicrous post-World War II novel called Froth on the Daydream, by Boris Vian. Reading it, as I did, you come to see that this could only have been made by one of the aforementioned directors—every single page is drenched in whimsy. Consider this passage:
When he showed his season ticket to the Commissionaire it winked at him through the two little round holes that had already been punched in it. The Commissionaire smiled back, but nevertheless gave a third brutal punch to the orange card, and the ticket was blinded for life.
Imagine over two hundred pages of this—virtually every single object in the world of the characters of Colin and Chloe is anthropomorphized, experiencing pain and suffering and happiness and joy, often moving about on their own, tickets and forks and doorbells and cars and television sets. Weapons are grown in soil and there are clouds that descend on their own to give lovers some privacy. And yet, weirdly enough, it works, and works magnificently. But does it work in the movie?
The story is simple: Colin (Romain Duris) is a bachelor living in the niftiest flat in Paris, replete with a pianococktail—a piano that makes cocktails that reflect the mood of whatever you happen to be playing (the best is Duke Ellington, whom the author loved and knew personally). Colin has a cook, Nicolas (Omar Sy), easily one of the coolest cats in the whole world, who concocts incredible dishes for Colin and his guests, especially best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). For instance, Nicolas whips together a dish from eels that come in through the faucets; I could mention that he also gets help from a televised chef, who literally reaches through the set to help cook (there’s so much of this kind of detail I’ll have to abstain from describing more).
Chick is in love with a girl, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), whom he plans to see at a party. Nicolas also has a beautiful woman meeting him at the same party, prompting Colin to stand and shout, “I demand to fall in love, too!” And so he does, meeting the lovely Chloe at the same party—this is, of course, Audrey Tautou.
Colin and Chloe spend the next twenty minutes falling in love, courting one another in tunnels and cloud cars, and finally getting married in a riotous church scene that involves jazz and what appears to be a bumper car race. We also learn that Chick is broke and can’t bear to marry Alise without enough to support them, but Colin, who is independently wealthy, loans him 20,000 doublezoons of the 100K that he has in his own safe. Now Chick will have enough to marry Alise! Everyone’s happy, right?
Alas, nothing goes as planned. Horribly, Chick succumbs to his obsession with the writer Jean-Sol Partre, at whose reading he actually met Alise. He buys everything associated with the writer—every edition of his book, every scrap of clothing, you name it. (The novel's writer, Boris Vian, perfectly captures the nature of obsessive collecting, working wonders with various bizarre editions of Partre books, including those that have fingerprints and smudges from the man.) Poor Chick loses his job, alienates the devoted Alise, and wastes away.
Worse, Chloe ends up with a water lily in her lung, one that we know is fatal despite everyone’s hopes (and the surrounding sweetness of the movie). Coughing, fainting, barely able to walk, she ends up in the care of a reckless doctor (well played by director Gondry), who succeeds in killing it but ruining one lung—when she gets another, she is doomed. Trying to save his wife with expensive medical treatments (which include quack medicine and surrounding Chloe with expensive flowers), Colin’s fortune drains away to nothing, and he’s forced to work in horrible conditions and fire Nicolas. Things get worse, much, much worse.
First of all, Mood Indigo suffers from poor casting. Obviously hoping to inject a bit of stardust into his film, Gondry cast Tautou and Duris, two actors pushing forty (Duris is exactly forty) to play people who should be in their mid-twenties. This should be a typical “boy meets girl” story, not a “middle-aged man meets middle-aged woman” story, but, perhaps because of Gondry’s aging and wishing he were young again, he’s cast everyone in their late thirties at best. Tautou and Duris have virtually no chemistry between them, and barely even kiss on screen. Honestly, Tautou looks really uncomfortable with Duris in every moment of intimacy, and he simply looks, well…old.
This matters because it puts a patina on the movie that comes across as off-putting. In the book, youth is the engine behind the whole world. Vian was a man who at a young age developed a serious lung ailment (he actually died of a heart attack at age 39), and saw poor health and poverty rip his family apart. So you sense that this was the story of a person whose imagination is almost literally stronger than the human body that held it. Watching four young people chase love and affection through this magical world makes sense; watching four forty year olds doesn’t—it’d be like trying to imagine A Hard Day’s Night performed by the late-'60s Beatles (who were still younger than the actors here).
Gondry, for some reason, also stripped away the darkness and the sensuality of the novel. Froth on the Daydream is sweet in its description of the love affair between Colin and Chloe, until it veers into some richly sexual moments that make this love affair catch fire. The same is true of the violence that is exhibited throughout the book—Vian understood that his world, whimsical though it was, must be leavened with death and sadness. Yes, shadows dance around on their own and eels come in through the pipes, but people die and cry and are sad in this world. (The eels in the book are horribly butchered, as you would do to fish that are going to become dinner.)
In Mood Indigo, everyone in love smiles and bats their eyes sweetly to the point where you want to leap into the movie and wipe those smiles off their faces. No one is hurt until suddenly everyone hurts, but the pain is as shallow as the love that preceded it. When tragedy strikes, it doesn’t feel earned—the film's story leaps from happy-all-the-time to sad-all-the-time, and their frowns look equally annoying as their smiles. Vian was a master of painting a ridiculous world that still maintained the subtle nuances of life as we know it. In this way, he compelled us to turn the page, as we yearned to see these six people (including Nicolas, the chef, and his girl, Isis) succeed in their life and love.
I think Mood Indigo still works, in part because Gondry’s total commitment to his world—with all its strange, handmade special effects—is fascinating to watch. The music is pleasant, many of the supporting actors do well (especially Gad Elmaleh, who is also too old yet perfect for the role of Chick, the book-obsessed man, and pulls it off where others fail), and honestly I think we owe it to ourselves to see works like this rather than the newest Marvel comic-book garbage. Oddly enough, despite Mood Indigo’s emptiness, Gondry manages to pull together an epilogue to the movie that suddenly injects it with a heartbreaking edge—would he have given the rest of the film such a focused touch, this would have been a masterpiece.
In the end, this is what I would recommend: Mood Indigo will probably not be in theaters long, but the Boris Vian novel is short, and a quick read. Leap into this book, which I’m willing to bet you haven’t read (or probably even heard of), and then see the film, which deserves to be witnessed on the big screen. Vian’s story of Colin and Chloe will linger with you in the cinema, enriching Gondry’s visual feast with its warm heart.