Fifteen months after it premiered in its native France, U.S. audiences will finally be able to discover “Mood Indigo,” the adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel “Froth on a Daydream” directed by Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).
In a world in which a lot of movies, or at least those made by name directors, are released across the globe in the span of just a couple of weeks, that seems like an unusually long time to have to wait. But there’s an explanation of sorts: The film released in the U.S. is not the original version that got a theatrical release in April 2013 in France — which clocked in at 130 minutes — but rather a slimmed down and recut “international version,” supervised by Indian-born editor Tariq Anwar (“American Beauty,” “The King’s Speech”), that is only 90 minutes long.
I’m the first one to admit that I would prefer most directors to have final cut, as the possibility that producers or distributors might interfere with artistically logical or necessary contents that could have a potential impact on the film’s bottom line is often present. Stories about Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein and his demands for recuts are legendary; just this year, he wanted to interfere with Cannes opener “Grace of Monaco” and “Snowpiercer,” both English-language films that could potentially be crowd-pleasers in their respective genres. The directors of both films balked.
But there are cases when a severe pruning can make a huge difference in a positive way, and that’s absolutely the case for “Mood Indigo,” a French-language film that’s so whimsical and stuffed to the rafters with Gondry’s quirky do-it-yourself aesthetic — as seen in his music videos and films such as “Be Kind Rewind” and “The Science of Sleep” — that in the original version, the story often got lost amidst the inventive setpieces.
For their much leaner cut, Anwar and Gondry have shaved off a whopping 40 minutes, but instead of feeling like a truncated version of the original, this new cut puts the story and the characters front and center, where they clearly belong, while relegating the eye-popping and potentially distracting production design, costumes and (often stop-motion animated) flights of fancy to the background.
Vian’s novel isn’t exactly what one would call realistic in tone and it seems that Gondry might have originally used this as an excuse to indulge himself in several colorful asides (many of them, it has to be said, originally imagined, at least in a sentence or two, by Vian himself). “Daydream” tells the story of a single and rich gentleman, Colin (Romain Duris, from “The Beat that My Heart Skipped”), who falls in love with a beautiful girl, Chloe (“Amelie’s” Audrey Tautou), whom he eventually marries. But their post-marital bliss is cut short when, on their honeymoon, a water lily starts growing in Chloe’s right lung — I told you it wasn’t realistic — and she needs to be surrounded by fresh flowers to keep from withering herself, which proves so costly that Colin needs to find a menial job.
If the idea of a pharmacy where silver carrots are turned into pills by a contraption that’s half-machine and half-rabbit sounds like something insufferably quirky and twee, then you won’t like this version any better than the previous one. But for those open to constant flights of fancy that are now the imaginative and often amusing background to an unusual love story, this new cut is an enormous improvement.
A scene like a special lecture by the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton, playing someone clearly inspired by Jean-Paul Sartre) that Colin’s best friend and voracious reader, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), attends with his philosophy-crazy girlfriend, Alise (Aissa Maiga), was a setpiece that lasted for minutes on end in the original but here zips by in a manner of seconds, with the huge crowd and complicated stage machinery — that includes an elephant-shaped tank of sorts and an oversized cigar pipe from which Partre preaches — just barely glimpsed instead of front and center.
The more narrow focus on the humans that populate the tale also great benefits the supporting characters, which, in the longer version, occasionally popped up only to disappear whenever the fanciful audiovisual pyrotechnics would take over. But here the supporting cast feels more elemental to the story and, especially, the universe of Vian and Gondry. The role that Chick and Alise play in foreshadowing both some overarching themes and the story of Colin and Chloe in particular was something that was almost completely lost in the original cut.
More generally speaking, the first version often felt emotionally distant and cold, as the characters played second fiddle to the visually insane wonderland they inhabited. Now, the characters have story arcs and emotional journeys that just happen to take place in a very fanciful version of the world we know.
One of the main themes of Vian’s work is how our feelings and emotions shape the world around us. Gondry clearly tries to translate the characters’ emotions into sounds or visuals. Chloe, for example, is named after the eponymous Duke Ellington tune, and jazz plays a major role in the story.
In many ways the style of the novel itself is comparable to the way trained jazz musicians like to improvise around established themes and on-screen, looking for the best way to express feelings and ideas non-verbally and Gondry tries to do something similar. For example, the rectangular rooms of Colin’s house became round because of a Duke Ellington song that’s played, and as Chloe’s disease gets worse, the rooms literally shrink and become drained of color until, by the end of the film, everything is practically in black-and-white. That music can be associated with death is also suggested when Chloe’s doctor (played by Gondry himself in a very odd casting choice) hears music coming from her infected right lung.
Some of the political overtones of the story are also clearer now — remember that the novel was published only two years after WWII — with the wealthy Colin, rendered penniless by a tragedy, having to join the workforce. One of the film’s most delightful (if now very short) sequences sees Colin introduced into the mysterious writing room where the story of Colin is actually being written (one can see a touch of Gondry’s former screenwriting partner Charlie Kaufman here, which suggests why Gondry might be such a good fit for the material).
The writing-room scenes were filmed in the Communist Party’s headquarters in Paris, strikingly designed by Oscar Niemeyer, which further reinforces the film’s references to labor and an equal distribution of goods and which seems to literally suggest that work (and money earned through work) can give one the tools to influence one’s own life story.
Quite detailed readings such as these were practically impossible in the longer version, as feelings and ideas were lost behind a smokescreen of visual flourishes that — in the film’s previous incarnation — seemed to excite Gondry much more than the story. Sometimes less is indeed so much more.
“Mood Indigo” opens in limited release today. Browse other critics’ reactions in the Criticwire Network.