Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.
Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.
There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.
Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?
As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.
I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over, but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.
Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.
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