L’écume des jours
“I like this way of seeing the world, the fact that everything is re-created and everything is possible in this world. It’s not from our time, it’s not the past or the future, it’s just sort of a science fiction of present day.”–Michel Gondry on Mood Indigo
FEATURING: Roamin Duris, Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aïssa Maïga
PLOT: Colin, an independently wealthy inventor of gadgets like a piano that mixes a cocktail based on the tune played on it, meets the enchanting Chloe at a poodle’s birthday party, and the couple soon marry. His best friend Chick, meanwhile, is pursuing a romance of his own with his cook’s sister, while simultaneously battling an addiction to the work of celebrity philosopher Jean-Sol Partre. When Chloe falls victim to an unlikely infection—a water-lily grows in her lung—her medical bills bankrupt the couple, and Colin must take a job to pay for her treatment.
- Mood Indigo is an adaptation of polymath Boris Vian’s 1947 novel “L’Écume des jours” (translated as “Froth on the Daydream,” “The Foam of Days,” or “Foam of the Daze“). The novel was adapted for film in the 1968 French effort Spray of the Days and 2001’s Chloe (from Japan).
- Among other talents, Vian was a musician and jazz critic, and Duke Ellington was godfather to Vian’s daughter. The movie’s English title, “Mood Indigo,” comes from a famous Ellington number. Although Duke appears on the soundtrack and his ballad “Chloe” actually plays a part in the story, the song “Mood Indigo” is never heard or referenced in the film.
- Jean-Sol Partre, the writer to whose works Chick is addicted, is, of course, a reference to existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was a personal friend of Vian’s. (You have to be awed by anyone who counted both Duke Ellington and Jean-Paul Sartre among their close confidants).
- The original version of the film released in France ran 130 minutes. In the United States and Australia, the film was re-cut to run only 90 minutes.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Trying to disguise the movie’s off-putting surrealism, Mood Indigo‘s U.S. marketers favored generic romantic comedy images of Tautou and Duris making lovey-eyes at each other (including one weirdish scene of them kissing underwater) to make it look like a quirky date movie. In fact, while Mood Indigo is sentimental at the beginning, it’s far more focused on handmade oddities (including a doorbell that scurries about like a beetle) and nonsense gimmicks than it is on romance, which is an afterthought and an excuse to root around in the director’s toy box. We think the most representative image is the inhaled spore that settles inside Chloe’s lung as she sleeps, covering her handmade heart with a coat of stop-motion frost.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Whimsical but weird, set in a peculiar Paris that could exists only in the dreaming mind, Mood Indigo is like Amelie on surrealistic steroids. If had suddenly gone soft-hearted and been given millions of dollars to make a romantic comedy, he might have come up with something like this.
U.S. trailer for Mood Indigo
COMMENTS: Unless you have a high tolerance for whimsical surrealistic excess, you may find yourself overstimulated by Mood Indigo before the opening credits are finished. In that time, you will have witnessed a control room with a rows of typists sequentially tapping out a story on keyboards rolled along on conveyor belts; a bather drilling a hole in his tub to drain out the purple bathwater; a tiny man in a mouse costume using a pair of scissors as a bubble wand; a giant trumpeter thrusting his instrument out of an apartment window while a LP goes sailing by; and a man slicing off his excess eyelids as part of his morning ablutions. Actually, those are just the highlights. Some of these motifs will recur through the film; some are one-off gags. But, like the “Take the A Train” track that accompanies this opening montage, Gondry is establishing an up-tempo pace, making sure his surrealism swings.
Visually, Mood Indigo may be the Gondriest Michel Gondry film ever made. The tinseled dream worlds that were refuges from reality for Stephan in The Science of Sleep are the baseline reality here. People’s wrists rotate 360 degrees when they shake hands, and when they dance their legs grow and warp like their bottom halves are reflected in funhouse mirrors. Every shelf in this movie is filled with Dadaist doo-dads. Colin’s dinner table is on roller skates. Speaking of dinner, the meals the cook prepares (from eels he catches in the house’s faucets) move around on the plate; meat slices itself, spins around and recombines into pinwheel patterns, then disposes of itself, shuffling off down a garbage chute to make room for the next course. Gondry favors a colorful but crude and deliberately artificial form of stop-motion animation that imparts a handmade quality to the film. It seems like about one-third of Mood Indigo is either animated, undercranked, digitally altered, or otherwise fiddled around with.
With all of this going on it’s really no surprise that the plot gets short shrift. Essentially, Mood Indigo is a formula love affair, complete with tragic ending (about which more later). That’s not to say that there is not a lot going on in the story as well; it’s just that the body exists for the sake of the ornaments, rather than the other way around. Audrey Tautou was clearly cast to try to evoke the charm of her Amélie Poulain, but Chloe is underwritten, and the ingénue spunk is missing. Colin has a bit more depth, although ultimately he is not much more than an eccentric inventor who happens to be an eligible bachelor. Their romance has no suspense or conflict until Chloe’s illness strikes; we rely on the incidentals to entertain us. The parallel love story, between Colin’s friend Chick and his cook’s sister Alise, has more narrative bite. That plotline incorporates an absurd satire on the fanciful conceit of celebrity intellectuals: at one point, Partre lectures on philosophy to a crowd of screaming fans from inside a giant pipe. Alise wants Chick to commit. At Colin and Chloe’s wedding, the priest spontaneously offers to marry whomever wins an impromptu buggy race, and she sees the opportunity to escape existence as a supporting character: “we can change the whole narrative!” But the words of Partre are like a drug for Chick; he spends all his money on books, recordings and lectures, to a tragic end.
Mood Indigo seems to promise the viewer a slow death by sugary sentiment. Even the disease that strikes Chloe down is cute; what could be a more adorable death than perishing from a lily in the lung? But nothing could be more appropriate for the mercurial Mood Indigo than for the movie to take a sudden left turn in tone. And so it does. As Chloe worsens, the story turns darker, and the color literally drains out of the picture. The final act involves infidelity, addiction, bad jobs, impoverishment, revenge, murder, book burning, hearts ripped from chests, and police brutality. All this before our heroine dies and our hero is left with a heart like a lump of lead.
Although everything becomes more somber, we still inhabit the same recognizably absurd Paris at the end. The priest who once seemed merely fanciful when he turned the wedding into a race now offers an opportunity for traditional surrealistic anti-clerical satire. He bluntly complains about the paltry sums he’s offered for the burial: it will be “a dreadful service,” he promises. The coffin proves too large to get out of the door of Colin’s apartment. The humor is now pitch black. “It’s things that change, not people,” Colin insists, but the movie suggests the opposite; we see this world through his eyes, and where Paris was once filled with flowers, at the end it is covered in dust. I’m not sure the overly bitter ending cures the overly sweet beginning. But you cannot accuse Mood Indigo of indulging any emotion halfway.
Note: this review is based on the 130 minute cut of the film.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… feels almost desperately interminable, a wearying experience that resembles being locked in a very small room with an exceptionally bright, pathologically self-absorbed child who will not shut up or calm down.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: Mood Indigo | Drafthouse Films – Unfortunately there is not much here beyond the synopsis, a trailer, and links to buy the film
IMDB LINK: Mood Indigo (2013)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Michel Gondry on Mood Indigo: ‘It has a special connection with adolescence’ – video interview – The director discusses the movie in a filmed interview with Andrew Pulver of The Guardian
Why Michel Gondry’s ‘Mood Indigo’ is Better Than It Used to Be – Critic Boyd van Hoeij argues that the shortened version of Mood Indigo is a stronger film than the director’s cut
DVD INFO: Drafthouse/Cinedigm’s 2 disc DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) set includes both the “extended” (130 min.) and “theatrical” (90 min.) cuts of the film, so you can decide for yourself whether the extra 40 minutes are necessary or an indulgence. The set also comes with over 100 minutes of featurettes and bonus material, including the two minute “animated letter” Gondry created to lure Tautou into accepting the role. There is also an extensive 36-page booklet with essays, interviews, storyboards and stills.
Mood Indigo is also available on video-on-demand (rent or buy), but only in the 90 minute theatrical cut.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “karcsi,” who described it as “totally completely weird… in a very cute and sweet way.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)