“Mood Indigo,” the latest from the Michel Gondry dream factory, is something of a cinephile’s movie. The playful whimsy merchant might be closing a book or opening a new one, since the picture almost feels transitional. All the Gondry staples are there—the dreams that fold into reality, the un-acknowledged fantasy, the entirely-too-pleased-with-itself practical effects. But this feels different. Some will find this romantic fantasy the uber-Michel Gondry text, indulging in all his worst tendencies. But if anything, this is like the head-in-the-clouds fantasist finally closing his beloved sketchbook and facing the rest of the world.
In the Gondry role of the enterprising, selfish, dapper young man is Romain Duris, the sharp-jawed charmer who has represented Gaellic shorthand for easygoing charisma and traffic-stopping handsomeness. As Colin, a layabout inventor with a wild mind, he concocts implausible and unnecessary devices like a rotating table that serves drinks, or a pianococktail which is exactly what it sounds, and which characters refer to as if it were a common item.
Colin doesn’t have it all, however, which gives him an entitled bout of anger. When a dinner party approaches, Colin learns that he is the only person without a date. Frustrated with actual courtship (like all Gondry protagonists, he’s endlessly fidgety and impatient), he lucks into Chloe, played by the first lady of French cinema, the luminous Audrey Tautou. Considering the type of lightweight tale this is, you’re surprised Tautou’s introduction isn’t a grander gesture. This is likely evidence that Gondry has grown tired of his devices, because the meet-cute is a trend that Gondry has tirelessly reinvented in his films, placing his thinly-sketched female characters on a pedestal. It feels deconstructionist compared to Gondry’s other work because of what DOESN’T happen; never mind the fact that Ms. Tautou is so lovely that, really, every filmmaker stops their movies at a halt to briefly admire her.
Their courtship is filled with repeatedly juvenile inventions and flights of fancy, some more organically than others. If you have a problem with the way the two characters take off in a floating cloud car during one date without explanation, perhaps repeating Gondry 101 might be necessary, should you wish to re-engage with “Mood Indigo.” Gondry’s practical effects have run wild in this film, moreso than other ones, and it almost feels like he’s no longer in control of them. One dance sequence finds the characters’ legs grow to massive Gumby size, supposedly a necessity to perform a certain routine. And every time the alarm goes off in the apartment Colin shares with his cheery lawyer Nicholas, played by Omar Sy (has Gondry ever HAD a lawyer?), it scatters around the apartment like a jittering bug, avoiding Colin’s paranoid chase. Whimsical stop motion is as much a tool to Gondry as explosions are to Michael Bay and the two of them utilize those tools in exactly the same way.
Suddenly, the relationship goes south—a little red ball of yarn forms in Chloe’s chest. She’s dying, and there is no invention on earth that can allow Colin to save her. This is when the picture basically turns out the light; the film actually does dim the color in this sequence. Colin has never previously worried about a job or money, but now he is broke. And, crucially, Gondry enters the picture as her doctor. His suggestions, including the endless supply of flowers he suggests will absorb the sickness, is exactly the sort of idea that would work in a Gondry movie. Like a Gondrian fool, Colin takes his every word as gospel. The fact that it doesn’t even remotely work suggests Gondry turning a page on his early career interests.
In fact, does Gondry even LIKE Colin? The filmmaker depicts the character’s life functioning according to the whims of a hidden room of typists, firing away at the elements of his life. At first, it seems like someone is watching over him. Soon, it’s just diction. The reversal that occurs in Colin’s life is karmic, basically, the suggestion that he’s skated by for far too long. The doctor that Gondry plays doesn’t seem to like Colin either. In one sequence, as he treats Chloe, he tries to let Colin know that it could be worse, and Gondry’s character procures from his wallet a snapshot of his own wife. Instead of being suddenly grateful, he merely, cruelly laughs at the doctor. Has Gondry found that his own work, his whole life, has been overly, unnecessarily charmed?
This autocriticism smooths over a basic story that ultimately, yes, does struggle to breathe under the weight of its own silliness. Omar Sy’s Nicholas is there to bring Colin back down to earth, but the friend (who is almost always cooking onscreen) seems to register his own specific, emotional depth. He’s playing a real person, but conceptual Colin is a construct. The cinematic, academic reading of the film proves vital. Without it, this is basically a paper-thin romance that turns sour far too quickly. [B]
Jessica Kiang reviewed the international longer cut at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival last year. You can read that review here.