Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours)
France (2013) Dir. Michel Gondry
Sometimes one sees a film, painting or another piece of art with a surreal bent to it and the first thought is “What was going through their mind when they came up with that?” Sometimes it is best not to ask – watching the films of French auteur Michel Gondry can fall into the latter category.
Based on the 1947 surrealist novel Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian (already filmed twice before, by France and Japan) Gondry has let his noted wild and limitless imagination to run wild like never before in his adaptation, with an opening sequence that literally doesn’t take a breath in bombarding the viewer with one bizarre image and scenario after another. If your head isn’t left spinning by this the bad news is we haven’t got anyway near the story yet!
Inviting quite valid accusations of being all style and no substance there is a method to this visual madness, which is a relief to those who like a little plot to go with their whacky imagery. Our central protagonist is wealthy inventor Colin (Romain Duris) whose house is a veritable adventure playground of crazy gadgets, abstract appliances and stop motion animated food, supplied by his chef/attorney/chauffeur/housekeeper and confident Nicolas (Omar Sy).
At party he attends with his friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and his lover Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin meets and falls for Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and eventually they marry but on the honeymoon Chloé inhales a water lily in her sleep, which takes up residence in her right lung. With Chloé’s health taking a turn for the worse and his wealth drying up, Colin is forced to take a job in order to fund the cure to save his wife’s life.
It is a rather simple and quite sentimental storyline for such an abstract work but then it would have to be otherwise it would make even less sense than it probably does for a lot of people. Once it actually gets going – which is close to the one hour mark – the focus is solely on the story which helps tremendously as the first act is, as mentioned earlier, a cavalcade of psychedelic nonsense with the merest presence of a plot direction.
Gondry certainly has a vivid and creative imagination and if he hasn’t pushed it to its limits with Mood Indigo then we should either be excited or live in fear for what he will come up with next. Describing the many gadgetry and imagery is both easy and difficult: you can either imagine it as Wallace & Gromit on acid or Terry Gilliam’s Python-era animations designed in collaboration with Jan Svankmajer with additional designs by Hieronymous Bosch! Yet anyone who has seen Gondry’s other works, such as The Science Of Sleep, will recognise his playful style which is, ironically, rooted in reality although here it are given a CGI upgrade.
Among the amazing treats we behold includes a pianocktail maker (a piano that makes cocktail), a TV chef who is actually on hand in the kitchen with Nicholas, a see-through car, shows that tie themselves and walk on their own and rabbits that produce medicine. It’s as if Spike Milligan wrote the script! Colin also has a pet mouse (if not animated it is Sacha Bourdoin a suit for the close ups) who helps out with things around the house and a doorbell which adopts the form of an insect and crawls into the various rooms whenever someone calls.
As whimsical as this tale is the metaphor for Chloé’s ailment is obviously more serious and while we are dealt plenty of fantastic imagery to effectively sugar coat this, the message that love is great healer shines through clearly enough. It makes for a touching love story but Gondry cleverly alters the visuals to match the effect Chloé’s deteriorating condition has on the world around her. The house becomes smaller as the spectre of death closes in and the colour gradually ebbs away from the screen until it is a dull and foreboding grey.
What serves as a more jarring adjunct to the initial fluffiness of the main story however, is the subplot involving Chick. Like Colin he is experiencing love for the first time but he doesn’t have his friend’s wealth, spending all his money on the writer Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton), a spoonerism of the great existentialist writer and Vian’s friend Jean-Paul Sartre. Chick borrows some money from Colin but spends it all on Partre’s works but not on Alise as promised. Is Vian having a pop at Sartre, his works or something else which was private to them?
Having recently been watching Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou as a fractious couple in the Spanish Apartment Trilogy it is pleasant change to see them as a much happier couple here as Colin and Chloé. Gondry exploits the clear chemistry between them to its fullest, creating a near throwback to the Rock Hudson-Doris Day rom coms of the 1950’s. As such Tautou is called upon to draw on her breakthrough role of Amélie, as Chloé shares some of her impish charm and naïve view of the world, while Duris begins the films with the same wide eyed awe of all around him but as things take its toll, Colin becomes a much darker character.
Along with Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aïssa Maïga and indeed the whole the cast, Duris and Tautou play everything completely straight no matter how abstract, esoteric or downright bonkers it may be. One expects a sly wink to break of the fourth wall but it never comes, thus we become invested in the story with the same level of attachment as the characters.
Mood Indigo is a visual experience like no other which luckily has a potent story beneath the inventive imagery. How much of this aspect will appeal or be a distraction will vary from viewer to viewer but Gondry has at least made up for The Green Hornet!
N.B – This review is based on the 130 minute Director’s Cut of the film.