If anything, Michel Gondry knows how to create memorable movie images. Who can forget Gael Garcia Bernal’s oversized hands in The Science of Sleep (2006); Jack Black’s sweded Robocop in Be Kind Rewind (2008); or Kate Winslett and Jim Carey’s lovers stretched out on a sheet of thin, cracking ice in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)? On first encounter, Gondry’s lo-fi aesthetic comes as a breath of fresh air, and it’s hard not to be charmed by his passion, inventiveness and celebration of the pro-am spirit. After a critically and commercially unsuccessful comic book adaptation (2011’s Green Hornet), Gondry has turned to a novel by French polymath, Boris Vian, for his latest project: Mood Indigo.
At heart, Mood Indigo traces the typical trajectory of a modern day love story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy comes to terms with the strange and fleeting nature of love. Romain Duris stars as Colin, an independently wealthy bachelor who is determined to fall in love when he learns that his best friend Chick has a new girlfriend. Colin is taken to a party where he is set up with Chloe, a doe-eyed ingenue played as usual with pixie-like charm by Audrey Tatou. Their heady romance leads swiftly to marriage but, on the couple’s honeymoon, Chloe falls seriously ill when a water-lilly embeds itself on her lung. If this seems a rather unusual plot twist, fear not: by the time we reach this point in the story, all our conventional expectations of narrative plausibility have been well and truly blown to smithereens.
From its blistering opening sequence, Gondry subjects the audience to a fugue of mad-cap inventions, anachronistic gadgets, a half-human mouse and a room full of people collectively typing out the plot of the story we’re watching. As if all of this contrivance weren’t enough to take in, Gondry pulls out all the stops: hand-held camera work, cross-cutting between parallel action, stop motion photography and digital effects. The pace is unrelenting, and doesn’t let up. Dazzling set piece follows curious oddity followed by yet another dazzling set piece. When the film succeeds it is because of Gondry’s singular vision and distinctive visual style. But one soon senses that even the director’s fertile imagination is over-stretched here by the sheer volume of inventiveness required to hide the shortcomings in the script. At times, the film feels like a pale imitation of Juenet & Caro (who made Amelie and Delicatessen – clear visual templates); but more often than not, it simply fails to engage.
Whimsy can be an effective narrative strategy, but it only really works when it is used subversively, poking fun at conservative institutions/conventions that are particularly resistant to change. Pier Paolo Pasolini does this to great effect in Hawks and Sparrows (1966) where he undermines the pious dogma of the Catholic Church by having a flock of sparrows convey his own brand of radical, Marxist-infused theology. Where Pasolini is clear, Gondry’s intent is muddled. We are never really sure where he is going, or how each of the various subplots hang together. A good example of this is the Jean Sol Partre thread. Anne Bilson’s review in The Daily Telegraph has pointed out that in Vian’s source novel (Froth on the Daydream), Chick’s impoverishing obsession with the fraudulent public intellectual Patre was a poorly veiled attack on the eminent philosopher Satre who ran away with Vian’s wife. Obviously, there is no such resonance in Gondry’s adaptation, and he never fully succeeds in connecting it to the film’s overall themes of doomed love and our fragile (perhaps imagined) grip on reality.
It’s hard to tell who this film will appeal to. There are certainly memorable moments and memorable characters (Omar Sy’s playful and ambiguous subversion of Black stereotypes as the manservant cum lawyer/mentor and dance craze inventor, Nicolaas, certainly stands out), but the overall effect is disappointingly insubstantial.