Michel Gondry’s followed his muse to many great successes in his career, but that muse has also led him some places the audience just won’t follow, resulting in his share of spectacular failures. And few are more spectacular, or bigger failures, than Mood Indigo, which is almost a case study in catastrophe. A beloved, eccentric novel as adapted by a beloved, eccentric auteur, stretching out over epic length (cut by nearly an hour for its American release) and filling every minute with so much invention that it becomes exhaustingly quirky. It’s not just any old passion project: Gondry describes it as the movie he began filmmaking in order to make: “I first read Mood Indigo at 13-16 years, as we all did, I don’t remember exactly, and that was the first time I thought about making films. I had these ideas about this visual, busy universe, and it awoke in me ideas about how to visualize what [author Boris] Vian had written.” And its failure was in proportion to its ambitions, making back only half of its budget.
Viewers with the patience to wade through the whimsy, though, will find Mood Indigo opening up much more challenging, and much deeper pleasures. To paraphrase its namesake, “You ain’t been blue/No, no, no/You ain’t been blue/Til you’ve seen that Mood Indigo.” Most of the world dismissed it as a flop; when I first saw it five years ago, I thought it was a masterpiece. The truth, as it turns out, is somewhere in the middle – or, maybe, both are true at the same time. A fine mess, indeed.
The plot at first seems to be just a simple romance, the film equivalent of one of Paul McCartney’s “silly love songs” for Gondry and Vian to embroider with their surreal images – Gondry even compares the novel to Love Story. Romain Duris plays the young bachelor Colin, who is distressed to discover all his friends are dating while he remains single, and shouts “This feeling of solitude is unfair. I demand to fall in love too!” He gets his wish at a party that night in a boilerplate meet-cute with Chloe, played by Amelie’s patron saint of twee, Audrey Tautou. With his lanky frame and constant five-o’clock shadow, Duris is a classic awkward indie-movie sad sack, and Tautou is such a perfect embodiment of the manic pixie dreamgirl that the term’s inventor, Nathan Rabin, could barely avoid calling her one in his review, posted the same day he vowed never to use those words again. (He settled for “pixie-like.”)
If the story seems cliché, the bizarre imagery paradoxically settles into the same rut, with its pastel-colored, retro-chic aesthetic settling far too comfortably in with the many lesser filmmakers and artists who try to do something different and just end up the same as one another. Mood Indigo’s first half aims for brilliance but ends up merely too clever for its own good, with setpieces like a go-kart race through a church for first dibs on marriage, or Colin’s drink-mixing “pianocktail” (“You get a nostalgic taste from minor chords and optimistic ones from majors”). The pivotal party features refreshments that are served in tiny pastel-colored ovens and look like they could have come from any number of teeth-grindingly trendy bakeries. Other images cross the line from strangeness to flat-out inexplicability – by that point in the movie you’d think nothing could be a surprise, but why do all the employees at the skating rink have pigeon heads? As Rabin observed, Colin’s home is more than a little like some kind of Parisian Pee Wee’s Playhouse – and in fact, he copies Pee Wee’s grey suit and white saddle shoes ensemble for a good chunk of the film.
Still, Michel Gondry isn’t just Joe Sundance, and his unique vision can shine through all the cliché cutesiness. His investment in low-tech, handmade effects sets Mood Indigo apart from its peers. While indie culture has always prized artisanal care, Gondry commits to the bit far more than his peers, ignoring CG effects for jittery stop-motion, miniature sets, and the rear-projection effects that had fascinated him ever since his early music video “Lucas with the Lid Off.” As in the book, Colin frequently chats with a little mouse, but he’s played by an actor in a pantomime costume, and in some scenes where he has to interact with the full size actors, we see him flicker transparently as he’s projected on the wall.
And some of these images actually achieve the otherworldly effects that others strain for. At the dance where Colin and Chloe meet, the columns turn to transform the ballroom into an eerie mirrored jungle under bright blue light, and Gondry conveys the joy of the couple driving home from their wedding with an image of Colin sticking his head through the bubble top of their new car as every color of the rainbow filters in. Even the go-kart race uses the dizzying effects of rear projection to earn some genuine thrills. But some of the most moving images are also the simplest: the light in a country field making the fuzz of Chloe’s sweater glow or Colin and Chloe literally “walking on air” as they leave their wedding as Gondry films the actors suspended in water.
The French title (L’ecume du jours, or “The Froth of Days”) suits Mood Indigo’s light, frothy first half. But around the halfway point, it begins to take on a serious and deeply moving weight. While on their honeymoon, Chloe contracts a deadly illness caused by a water lily growing on her lung. If the cause seems pretty and, yes, cutesy, the results are anything but. The film’s flaws become strengths as it shifts gears. The surrealism turns from idle playfulness to true horror with images like the “heart snatcher” that rips the sticky, fleshy organ out of its victims’ chests – after all, the movement was born in the waking nightmares of the First World War. Even the cute little elephant-footed police tanks take on a thundering, plodding menace.
More than that, the fantasies gain a new power from grounding in real emotion. When Colin hears Chloe has fainted, the walls literally close in on him, and the long shadow that he casts on a building behind him detaches itself as a huge, threatening puppet to chase after him. His wonderful playhouse begins to change too, engulfed in dust and the scum of endless cobwebs. It becomes clear that things are becoming much more real when we see the adorable little mouse scrubbing the window until his paws bleed, with a look of despair on his face that’s anything but cute. The house steadily shrinks as Chloe’s illness worsens, until finally even the mouse is almost crushed inside.
But Gondry’s most heartrending stylistic flourish is also his simplest and subtlest. After the flower attaches itself to Chloe’s lung, all the color slowly drains from Mood Indigo’s colorful world, until we see her death in black and white. Gondry somehow turns the picture even greyer from there, filming the aftermath in the high-contrast, shadow-ringed style of the earliest silent movies. As this sedate, personal little story explodes into violence, it becomes all the more horrible as the barely-there color obscures the frame, making it just as difficult to tell what we’re seeing as it is to believe it. The washed-out digital photography isn’t quite vibrant enough as the film begins to make the experiment a perfect success, but it’s still devastating.
This kind of transition from carefree fantasy to crushing darkness is a staple of children’s literature like The Hobbit or the Harry Potter series, which J.K. Rowling said should grow up with her readers. Though the cast of Mood Indigo are apparently adults, Gondry taps into those same anxieties about maturity. The film opens with Colin in a childlike state: as his friend Nicholas, Omar Sy plays a parental role, providing both meals and moral support. Like a child, all his necessities are taken care of – the opening narration explains that he has no need to work because of all the money he has piled up in a safe hidden under his record player. He blurts out, “I demand to fall in love too!” with childish incomprehension, and he’s eventually initiated into the adult rewards of love and marriage. But they come at the price of other adult concerns: mortality, drudgery, and grief. The shrinking house certainly supports this interpretation – how many of us have returned to the places where we grew up and wondered how they got so small?
The story’s dark turn transforms the film from a cute slice of nothingness into a heartbreaking tragedy. I’ve described the first half’s approach as “whimsy.” That word suggests choices made thoughtlessly, on a whim. If that’s the case, the second half is anything but. Every choice is precisely calculated for maximum emotional impact. The job Colin takes to pay Chloe’s medical bill is miles away from literal reality: he has to lie naked on mounds of dirt so that his body heat can be evenly distributed over metallic acorns to ensure they grow into healthy “proton guns.” But seeing him lie there, huddled and freezing in the dark grey dirt, naked and anonymous, we get a sense of what 9-to-5 drudgery feels like.
Colin’s friend Chick’s obsession with the fictional(ish) author Jean-Sol Partre at first seems like quirky geekiness, but Gondry digs deeper into the real-world consequences of his single-mindedness. Even after Colin gives him a quarter of all his wealth, Chick collects himself into destitution, chasing after every obscure article and alternate edition. (The Sartre satire from Vian’s novel dates Mood Indigo far more than of its retro stylings – but then, it’s enough to make you almost nostalgic for a time when this kind of dangerous obsession was at least focused on deep philosophy instead of distractions for children.) Gondry draws the parallel between fandom and drug addiction, and he’s not subtle about it either: early on, Chick buys a book “in liquid form,” and he and Colin giggle like the stoniest of stoners while trying to keep Nicholas from noticing. It’s much less funny when Chick descends further into addiction and creates a solution out of Partre pages in water that he drops into his eyes at work. Word-addled, he loses control of the enormous grinder he’s supposed to be manning. Gondry rhymes and contrasts this scene with the earlier slapstick carnage at the skating rink. That scene was mostly bloodless, with so little care given to the victims they’re literally shoveled out of the way like garbage. The later massacre as Colin’s coworkers fall into the grinder isn’t much more realistic, necessarily, but all the viscera feels more viscerally, horrifyingly real.
Gondry may have accidentally summed up his own film in a conversation between Colin and Chick after they sample a drink from the pianocktail. “A few bum notes,” Colin says. Chick corrects him: “Two or three personal ones.” “A question of taste…” Colin replies. If Mood Indigo is a failure, it’s a nobler, more inspiring one than most successes. Instead of merely recording the world as it is, Gondry creates his own from the ground up. The epic length is an integral part of its effect: I haven’t seen the recut version, but it’s hard to imagine a paltry ninety minutes capturing the same feeling of a whole life and death from childlike wonder to mature heaviness, or a whole universe being built brick by brick and then torn down. And yet, for all Gondry’s painstaking and self-indulgent invention, Mood Indigo’s greatest pleasures are its simplest: the straightforward emotional core of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl.” At the same time, maybe the film’s flaws are necessary to its success. If Gondry hadn’t gone so hogwild packing his little crafting obsessions into every corner of this world, would its descent into despair be so effective? Could it pull the same unexpected gut punch if it didn’t spend an hour lulling the audience with its airy silliness? But hypotheticals seems pointless here. It’s difficult to imagine Gondry making Mood Indigo any differently than he did. His fingerprints are literally all over it, in every stitch and every nail. There are some bum notes, sure. But they’re never less than personal.
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