Michel Gondry’s newest movie, “Mood Indigo” (based on the legendary French novel by Boris Vian), is filled with many of the same fantastical and emotional tropes that have been splashed throughout his filmography: cloud rides over France, cars made of see-through panels, a piano that produces cocktails (fittingly called a Pianocktail). There’s also the familiar romantic approach––a budding relationship between two individuals (Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou) that reaches the manic highs and depressing lows we’ve all come to experience at some point in our lives.
It’s this juxtaposition between dreamlike and lifelike that makes Gondry such a unique voice in today’s industry. His shots are composed of images and props that come to life through stop-motion animation, while his stories often deal with the fear and excitement true love brings. Watching one of his films or music videos is like stepping into his subconscious––in my mind, it’s a crowded toy box filled with kitschy knickknacks and kissing couples––then trying to make sense of the scenery.
I spoke to Gondry about the themes he’s used over his career, as well as the sad afterlife of his movies’ handmade props, and his continued attraction to romantic uncertainty.
“Moon Indigo” is based on the beloved French novel “L’Écume des jours.” How did you balance what’s being told in the book, which has been passed down from generation to generation, with your own personal vision?
When I was asked to direct the picture and before I read the book again, I sort of put on paper my first memories of the book. When the screenplay was written, I wanted to incorporate my memories of reading the book when I was in my late teens. I remember vividly reading the scene in the ice rink, where the guy stretches and then everybody smashes on the floor. That was something that stayed with me for years.
So you were in your late teens when you read it…
Yeah, like most people in France.
What was the mood like toward the book at the time?
I think before [that] generation, there was a precursor of what happened in the late ‘60s in France, really to be against the army, just after the war. And that was a bit controversial for the time. But when the ‘60s came, that’s when French kids discovered [the book], and now it’s a classic. So I really have this personal relationship with it. I had never read anything like that, something that can be very dark and rich and creative but as well as [having] a lot of freedom.
Many of your films deal with romantic uncertainty––“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep,” this new one. What continues to draw you to that particular subject?
I think this is a very romantic movie, but it doesn’t shy away to be dark at the end. I think there’s a lot of kid love, but once Chloe is dead, there should be nothing left. In fact, the mouse gets killed at the end of the book. We couldn’t kill the mouse. It was just too hard. It seemed like Boris Vian wanted nothing to be left at the end of the book. That was sort of a very dark idea, but I think when you’re different you like scenes that are very dark. Maybe because you’re just going from reading children’s stories about happy endings and you feel like you’ve been a little bit light. And then you’re very into darkness.
I am curious, where does one find a see-through limo?
We built it from scratch. I think they used an old Cadillac with the frame, and then everything was removed. I think we put the Peugeot sign on it so they gave us some money. Only the front and back lights were from Peugeot.
I know many of the props in your films are handmade. Where do they go when you’re finished with the film? Is there a place they are collected? Are they destroyed?
[They are collected] in some places, but it would be too much cost to keep them. Unfortunately, a lot have been discarded. And it’s sad. When we do screenings, if there are some left, we can exhibit them. But it seems once it’s in the film, it doesn’t have to exist for real, which is a shame because if people like the film, they want to see the real object next to it. But very little has been saved. Its time is the film.
Have you kept any yourself over the years?
Uh, no very little. Bjork was doing an exhibition of all our work [at MoMA], and they asked me if I had any props left [from the music videos I directed for her] and I said “No, I barely have anything.”
Speaking of props, I also wanted to ask about that fabulous Pianocktail––a piano that makes drinks based on the chords you hit––from “Moon Indigo.” How did you conceive that, and, most importantly, where can I buy one?
I think there are a few people who have made some over the years. But we made our own. It was not really working as you would create a cocktail with the notes. But all the mechanics were working for real. There was a guy behind the [piano] with little buttons, moving things around. But everything was working practically.
Did it take awhile to build?
Yes, we had a few months. There was one person, who is an artist, who was dedicated to it. It was on the set, so I could come every day and see the work in progress.
Some of the most memorable cues from your work are the dreamlike sequences. Do you ever feel pressure to top them with each new project?
No, actually. My new project there is no dreams. Well, I guess there is one dream, but it’s very real. I like to go from one universe to another. Of course I always have my vivid dreams that I think would be great for a movie. But when I did “The We and the I,” for instance, it was very realistic. And my next one will be very realistic as well. In the next one, the character, one is based on me when I was a kid, and actually my dream was to build a car and drive myself before the age where you can drive, all across France. We didn’t really do it, but in the film they really do it. That’s what’s fun about doing a movie, you can achieve your dream.
You are a big proponent of stop-motion animation. Do you think that technique will be able to thrive in a world that’s increasingly turning to CGI?
There is a future [for it] in my films, as far as I can tell! I see a lot of kids who work with these techniques, and they mix well with the computer work. So I think it’s not necessarily nostalgia. It’s very practical. You can do it on your own. I mean I guess you can work on a computer on your own in your own home, but I see a lot of kids who are inspired by my way, of making handmade stuff and sending me the film. So I can tell you there are a lot of future directors who are going to use these techniques.
This year is the 10th anniversary of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” People are still seriously infatuated with the film. What do you think it is that struck a nerve with people, maybe more so than your other movies?
I think they can see themselves [in it]. They can see how relationships can be bitter and sweet at the same time, it can look lost and then you can find back what was great about the relationship and fall in love again. Many people come to me and say “we fell in love again by watching your movie.” It’s nice that people are connected with the work I’ve done. It means that impacts their life. It is very flattering.
Do you get a chance to re-watch any of your old films at all?
Um, I sometimes do have an opportunity to re-watch them when they do a special screening. I listen to the film. Some I like to watch. ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ it’s always very hard to watch it again because I [had] a very, very nice relationship while I was shooting the film and my girlfriend left me when I was editing it. So it’s a path to very dark memories. On most of my movies, I have a strong emotion attached to it, so it could be painful [re-watching]. And then I see all the issues, the problems. But when I watched my last movie, I already think of the next one and how I am going to make it different.
“Mood Indigo” opens in limited release on July 18th.