So if we were to CHROME CARROTS attempt to replicate the PERSPEX LIMO omnipresent inventiveness of TINY MOUSE IN A TINY HOUSE Michel Gondry’s latest film throughout the PIANO THAT MAKES COCKTAILS course of this review, it would SUNLIGHT IS STRING get pretty old, pretty damn RUBIK’S CUBE ORGANISER quick. So we’ll stop while we still have you, which is what we deeply wish Gondry had done. But in “Mood Indigo,” which opened the Karlovy Vary Film Festival last week, the French filmmaker’s gonzo homemade aesthetic is off the leash entirely, and he shows no mercy in how much gimcrackery he thinks we can handle. In our case anyway, we’re afraid he overestimated. He’s a director of whose feverish brain we’re totally in awe, and who has previously shown us such extraordinary delights that we’ve shed loads of goodwill towards any new endeavor, even if recent output has disappointed. But that “Mood Indigo” initially adds to, but ultimately exhausts this store should give you a good idea of just how much there is here, how very, very too much. Couple that with the unprecedentedly sourhearted turn the film takes in the second half (we’re not sure we can get with Gondry racking up a body count with such insouciance) and you’ve a movie that roused and ruffled our capacity for wonder, but then overloaded it, and left us on an odd downer.
To be fair, the plot, as much as there is one, and many of the embellishments that Gondry brings to literal life via stop-motion or split screen or makeshift set building or faux-miniaturization, or any one of the thousand tricks he has up his sleeve, are present in the source material — postwar French novel “L’ecume des jours” by author/polymath/tragic figure Boris Vian. So the “pianocktail” referred to above, the flower that grows in Chloe’s lung, the whole subplot about philosopher “Jean-Sol Partre” and even the eels and the anthropomorphic pet mouse, are all there in the original book (which, while dubbed unfilmable, has now been translated to screen three times). On paper, it would seem as though Vian and Gondry would be a perfect meshing of sensibilities. But in fact, it’s more a magnification, or the equivalent of the effect you get when setting two mirrors opposite each other: the labyrinthine nuttiness is amplified and reflected endlessly, on and on until it tests the horizon of our engagement.
[If you think it’s possible to *spoil* a Gondry plot, you might want to skip this paragraph.] Colin (Romain Duris) is an independently wealthy bachelor, living in a fantastical apartment that’s kind of like a train carriage suspended between two buildings, abetted by the resourceful Nicolas (Omar Sy), an indispensable Jeeves-like valet, who prepares stop-motion feasts, teaches him a rubber-legged dance called the Biglemoi and dispenses wise counsel. Colin also has a pet mouse (man in a mouse suit) who lives in a painstakingly detailed miniature version of Colin’s apartment. Jealous of his best friend Chick’s (Gad Elmaleh) new romance with Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin vows to fall in love and handily meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou) at a party. A whirlwind courtship ensues and the couple eventually marry, but on the honeymoon Chloe inhales a spore which takes root in her lung and causes her to sicken. The cure suggested by her doctor (Michel Gondry himself, deadpan-funny) requires a neverending supply of fresh flowers, which ruins Colin financially (he’s been helping Chick with money to feed his obsession with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre too), and so he goes to work in a series of horribly depressing and absurd jobs. Meanwhile cobwebs grow over everything at home as the world turns monochromatic and Alise turns murderer, then Chloe dies and is buried unceremoniously in a mass grave. No seriously, a paupers’ mass grave.
The first hour or so, which deals with the courtship, is exactly the sort of fizzy confection we might expect from Gondry, but turned up to 11, full of manic little details and tricksy filmmaking which charms and exhausts in equal measure. But it’s occasionally very funny too (the shoes that walk off by themselves; the trumpeter who spits out the bullet shot into his instrument; the constant gleeful smashing of dinner plates), and once you relax a bit and simply accept that you’re just not going to be able to catch every tchotchke or gizmo on a single viewing, it becomes a fun diversion. All the more so if you have enough French to be able to understand some of the punning that the English translation doesn’t get at. But then, deflating the breezy tone, people start to die, in sometimes grisly circumstances, and everything starts to decay and crumble. Gondry’s flair and visual wit can convey dreaminess sublimely, and nightmarishness too, but it doesn’t feel as suited to dystopia, which is where the film heads. The problem then becomes that neither is he adept at creating real relatable human characters, so when the tone turns sombre we have no emotional connection to Colin or Chloe (though Omar Sy’s Nicolas does manage some poignant moments), and the sad things that happen feel perplexingly depressing rather than epic and tragic.
Gondry’s film is really a huge Rube Goldberg machine, full of lights and buzzers and levers that ping and whistle endearingly but are connected to nothing and serve no greater function in the larger apparatus. And while it feels churlish to complain about too much care and intricate creativity lavished on a production when most Hollywood films suffer from a lack of same, at 2 hours 15 minutes it just wore us down. We’re bigger fans of “pure Gondry” (the films he wrote as well as directed) than many, “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind” especially, so our threshold for this kind of thing is high. But there’s probably as much of his trademark whimsical bricolage in this film (which he did not write) as there is in all his others combined, and with so much of Gondry’s and Vian’s and presumably screenwriter Luc Bossi‘s spectacular imaginations on display, the great shame is that there’s just no room left for our own, or for us at all really. And so, even if we can admire the film for the astonishing moments and images we can snatch at as they rush by, we can never quite take it to our hearts. [C+/B-]