From the moment it sputters to low-fi life, “Mood Indigo” is unmistakably the work of Michel Gondry, a sweet and sad little song of longing with the most visually inventive approach to emotion in any film this year. It is a strange surreal world that Gondry has created, one with no rules other than if someone in love starts coughing, that's not a good sign for them making it through to the end of the film.
Gondry is a romantic, no doubt about it, and he's also a guy who rejects the idea of living a “normal” life, meaning his lead character is a man-child who drifts through his days, his whole mind focused on whimsy and the ridiculous. The worst thing in the world in this film is the notion of getting trapped into doing a “normal” job. Gondry seems to view that as death. Sure, he's working from a novel by Boris Vian, but Gondry and co-writer Luc Bossi have crafted this as a film that plunges you into an interior landscape from the very start, a movie in which they hand-craft a reality to tell the story of Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tautou), lovers who have to grapple with sorrow when she develops a rare ailment.
It still seems crazy to me that a studio ever thought Gondry would be a safe bet as a director on a big action-comedy film like “The Green Hornet.” Looking at this or “Be Kind Rewind” or “The Science of Sleep,” it's apparent that Gondry just isn't that filmmaker. He has no particular interest in being that filmmaker. His work is an uneasy mix of a somewhat bleak and heartbroken view of human nature and a childlike sense of play. From the giddy enthusiasm of the film's opening act to the haunting, ethereal use of Duke Ellington in the film's final moments, “Mood Indigo” has a strong sense of its own voice, and it is one of those movies that you will either tune into quickly or reject wholly. I can't imagine a lot of middle ground on this one.
When the film opens, Colin is a layabout, a gleefully silly inventor who has a seemingly endless stack of cash that allows him to just follow his own eccentric interests all day, every day. His housekeeper/manservant/babysitter Nicolas (Omar Sy) cooks elaborate and somewhat deranged meals for him, and his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) spends his time pursuing a comprehensive collection of any and all ephemera related to a particular author. When thoughts turn to love for these men, it seems at first that the entire world is made of champagne bubbles, and I think that's what Gondry does best. He doesn't show you the world as it is. He shows you the world as it feels, and the first third of the film is just one long fevered burst of invention. I am particularly fond of the cocktail generating piano that Colin invents. You play the piano, and each key and each tone and the phrasing all gets piped into a machine that converts that into some ingredient for the cocktail. It's ridiculous and I love watching the scenes where Colin's demonstrating and drinking.
When Nicolas kicks off his day talking about a new woman he's met, and Chick does the same, Colin realizes that he's tired of being alone. He promptly ends up meeting Chloe, and Tautou is exactly as adorable and fetching as you'd expect playing the perfect woman for Colin. Also quirky, also childlike in many ways, Chloe feels like Colin's other half as soon as they meet. They don't just fall in love; they skip into it, hand-in-hand, totally ready and willing, and the world seems to open up around them, practically dancing with them.
But then one night, at the height of this happiness, an errant snowflake kicks off a change in Chloe, and the moment she starts coughing, it's clear where Gondry's going. The film's visual inventiveness maintains that same pace of sort of nonstop reveals, but the mood gets darker and sadder and darker and sadder, and the palette starts to wash out, the color leached from the world by what's happening to Chloe. Gondry even shows up in the movie as the doctor who is called in to help save Chloe, and his prescriptions are just as surreal as you'd expect.
The entire film is hung on a framework where we see The Administration, a large room full of people typing what appears to be the fates of everyone alive. We see them writing the story of Colin and Chloe, both joy and tragedy rained on them with a few quick typewriter strokes. Like much of the film, I like that idea in theory, and I like some of what Gondry does with it, but it feels like the film is, as a whole, somehow less than successful.
It's hard to justify saying that it doesn't “work,” because I feel like it's exactly the film that Gondry set out to make. He's well supported by his photographer Christophe Beaucame and by Etienne Charry's score, and I'd argue that production designer Stephane Rosenbaum and art director Pierre Renson are just much a part of how this world feels as Gondry is. It's like every frame has been crafted by hand, completely, with nothing borrowed from the real world. When we're in Colin's apartment for that first act and we're watching all of his odd charming inventions, there's an undeniable feel of looking at a Gallic Pee-Wee Herman, right down to Colin's preference of grey suits and white shoes. But there is a much more broken-hearted feeling simmering just below the surface of the film, and I think that's where Gondry struggles to really keep the film focused and to make it work. Once things start to get sadder, the energy goes out of the film, and it feels like a slow inevitable deflation. Tautou and Duris do exactly what they were hired to do, though, and she's got to know that every time she plays this kind of role, it cements her as the Awkward Oddball Dream Girl, a fixture of desire for guys who are terrified of adult women. It's a very particular niche, and she plays right to it with this one.
I don't think this is a major work by Gondry, but I'm not sure major work is his goal. “Mood Indigo” will absolutely play to anyone who already knows they like this filmmaker's way of looking at the world. If you want to see a movie that feels like someone handed modern cameras to a filmmaker from the era of silent comedy, “Mood Indigo” will more than scratch the itch. And while I thought it was gently moving at times, it feels like Gondry is hoping for a much more powerful impact, and the film just doesn't swing hard enough to make that happen.
“Mood Indigo” opens in NY and LA this weekend.