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Movie Review: Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo Is a Melancholy Mess Indeed

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Drafthouse Films

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At 51, Michel Gondry is no longer the boyish petit prince of whimsy. The man who brought us the scurrilously twee ramblings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the black and white chatter of "Lucas With the Lid Off" — yes, that was Gondry circa 1994 — can't coast by on his hyper fertile analog imagination any longer. There must be some matter to his art.

Excavation for that meat was my main purpose while watching his latest exercise in fantastical handicraft, Mood Indigo the film, starring Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, and Romain Duris, is based on Boris Vian's 1947 surreal classic novel L'Ecume des Jours. The closest English translation for that is "The Foam of Days," though when it was first translated into English, the title was "The Froth of Daydreams." It has also been translated as "The Foam of Daze." Mood Indigo, the English title, stems from the Duke Ellington song of same name that serves as a leitmotif in the film and, along Picassonian lines, its overall melancholy mood. But this difficulty in translation alludes to Vian's compulsive word play, a challenge when watching a film in translation.

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

The main players in the story are Colin, a wealthy bon vivant inventor; Chick, Colin's bibliophile friend; Alise, Chick's wife; and Chloé, with whom Colin falls in love with and eventually marries. The story is a sad if madcap one. On an early date, Chloe develops a deadly lung infection: a water lily becomes embedded in one of her lungs. The only remedy is for Colin to surround her in flowers, a cure that proves too costly for even the well-off Colin. Chick, meanwhile, falls even deeper into a bibliomaniac collection of the works of Jean Sol-Partre. There's that word play again.

Food runs rampant and antic through the film. There's a lot of it, and like so much of Gondry's world, it flashes by too quickly to be fully enjoyed. But for our purposes — that is, culinary — the most important character is Nicolas (Omar Sy) who is Colin's man-servant, lawyer, and chef. He's the man responsible for an eel pâté. That is, after he manages to catch the eel.

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

As Vian writes:

"This eel pâté is amazing," said Chick. "How did you come up with it?"

"It was Nicolas who thought of it," said Colin. "There's an eel — or rather, there was an eel — that kept getting into his sink through the cold-water faucet."
"That's weird," said Chick. "Why would it do that?"
"It would stick its head out and bite the tube of toothpaste to suck out all the contents. Nicolas only uses that pineapple-flavored American toothpaste, and it must have been irresistible."
"How did he catch it?" asked Chick.
"He put a whole pineapple on the sink instead of the tube of toothpaste. Normally when the eel had swallowed the toothpaste it could duck its head back in the pipe right away, but with the pineapple, it didn't work, and the more it tried to pull back, the deeper its fangs sank into the pineapple."

Gondry uses traditional old stop-motion animation to illustrate in a few seconds the exhilarating chase of eel by a man through Parisian plumbing using fruity American dental hygiene products. It's fanciful, and as it should be, creepy. Here he owes a large debt to that great Swedish puppeteer Jan Svankmajer's films Alice and Meat Love.

But it's just one of thousands of small moments of huge imagination. If I have a truck with the film, it's that Gondry is too casual with these moments. They are delightful but diffused.

Vian's novel is a jazz-fueled science fiction fantasy, but some aspects are remarkably prescient. Take, for example, Colin's master invention, a "pianocktail." It's a piano that creates a cocktail according to the mood of the song. Here's how it works:

I couldn't help but thinking, as I watched, that this is both a spot-on satire of the more esoteric reaches of contemporary mixology and something Nathan Myhrvold should probably do now. It can't be that hard, sort of a mix between Cognitive Cooking and Music Emotion Recognition.

It's possible to watch Mood Indigo on the superficial level of spectacle. In some ways that is, what I think, what Gondry goads the viewer into. But beneath the mania and imagination is a staggering work of genial hearts breaking. Everything and everyone in Vian's novel goes tits up. All that joyful embroidery of reality — the eels, the pianocktail, the modified Peugeot with a picnic table in the trunk — comes undone, its stitches rendered. Chloe dies, Chick dies, Colin is lonely, Alise is a murderer and even Nicolas — after serving brown mush — packs up his apron and is sent away like White Fang.

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

[Photo: Drafthouse Films]

Among all of Gondry's films, this and Dave Chappelle's Block Party seem the most potent distillations of what loss means. As for the Block Party, the sadness has to do with seeing a young less-neurotic Kanye West in his glory, the fleeting camaraderie of a Summer night and the Broken Angel, a work of impressive outsider architects, before it was demolished. But in Mood Indigo the sadness is a lingering, building, and breathing thing, not too dissimilar from Chloe's deadly water lily. It's beautiful, but it's what the Japanese call mono no aware, beauty tinged with sadness. The film lives up to its name, Mood Indigo. For just like indigo, as the blue mood gets bluer, it gets deeper, more satisfying and richer still.

All the frenetic invention and visual stimulation Gondry musters seems built only to be stripped away, to drive home the point that these are all but things that stop-and-go and stop-and-go until finally, they just stop.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Video: Mood Indigo Trailer

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