Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2014

Mood Indigo

Tragic whimsy

Michel Gondry's aggressively inventive 'Mood Indigo' is surprisingly warm, honest and poignant

Mood Indigo
Drafthouse Films
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenplay: Michel Gondry and Luc Bossi, based on the novel Froth on the Daydream, by Boris Vian
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh, Aïssa Maïga, Charlotte Le Bon and Michel Gondry
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Critic's note: This review discusses the second half of the story, and I get pretty deep into spoiler territory. If you would like to go into the film with no preconceptions or with as few details as possible, please read no further. But the film cannot really be talked about without at least addressing the events of the second half. Proceed at your own risk.

If there's one thing I didn't expect from Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo - especially after the whimsical, joyful, overquirked, borderline obnoxious opening scenes - it's that it would turn out to be a delicate and tender rumination on the effects of cancer. When a movie gives you stop-motion anthropomorphized alarm clocks, a pianocktail (which is exactly what it sounds like), a retro-fantasy version of the Internet that operates like a switchboard, and a pet mouse played by a miniaturized man in a mouse costume - and that's just in the first five minutes - the last thing you expect is for it to suddenly get Serious, much less actually pull that transition off.

It's a credit to Gondry - and editors Marie-Charlotte Moreau and Tariq Anwar (more on that in a bit) - that he is able to introduce and earnestly deal with that kind of subject matter amidst all his trademark visual gags and gadgetry. It's not what you would call a smooth transition - but it shouldn't be. Cancer isn't something you work your way up to, or prepare yourself for. It's a jolt, and it jolts our romantic leads out from their bubblegum fantasia and into a dreary reality in which time is swiftly running away from them.

And with that, the film's vision emerges, and the aesthetic that had seemed so arbitrary (if also quite charming) begins to take on an entirely different context. Life for Colin (Romain Duris) is, when the movie begins, a storybook fantasy. He's rich, good-looking and carefree. His meals are cooked for him by his close friend and personal chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy), with whom he spends most of his time, along with his pal Chick (Gad Elmaleh). He invents, he dances, he drinks, he parties. His apartment is a beautifully peculiar mosaic of instruments and contraptions.

When he wants to fall in love, he does just that - but only because Nicolas and Chick already have and he's feeling left out. Her name is Chloé (Audrey Tautou); he meets her at a get-together with friends and, despite his initial awkwardness, the two are instantly smitten for each other. The instant development of the relationship is something of a relief, as Gondry all but eliminates the contrivances that usually precede the inevitable romance. Here, we get right to the point. They meet, and then they're in love, and then they're together forever.

Only it turns out forever may not be nearly as long as they'd hoped. Now, I know I mentioned cancer earlier, but that's not precisely what afflicts Chloé; her illness (rather than a tumor, it's a water lily growing in her lungs) is the product of the same kind of whimsy that governs the entirety of Mood Indigo, a fact that in many ways makes it all the more devastating. The bright colors and dreamlike inventions of the film's early sequences gradually give way to an equally imaginative but increasingly drab aesthetic. Dirt and grime and cobwebs envelop the windows through which the Parisian sun once shone so bright. Characters literally age faster than time allows (Nicolas is stunned to find himself with greying hair, and even more stunned to look at his driver's license and find his birth year has receded by more than a decade).

Colin's nest egg gradually dwindles as he tries to care for his loving Chloé. He works one humiliating job after another. Every now and then the doctor (Gondry himself) stops by with a new batch of pills. The illness begins in one lung and progresses to the other.

I've long contested that the genres that get the furthest from actual realism can often address profound human concerns more effectively than more straightforward drama, which can so easily come across as hackneyed drama. While Mood Indigo is an imperfect concoction, I believe it's a deeply heartfelt rumination on cancer and loss that, in its surrealist and kitschy approach, strikes directly at the heart of the matter. Sometimes the fantastical prism is the most cathartic one to look through.

The film as a whole gives us Gondry at his most creative and undisciplined; but even though I find him frustrating and aggravating at times, the approach ends up paying off here. There's a distinctly handmade, Terry Gilliam-esque quality to the visual style, which seems like a hodgepodge of ideas and inventions that Gondry hadn't gotten around to using yet, so he just threw them all into this one movie. Not everything works - the mouse is particularly awful, a pointlessly quirky affectation whose appearances serve only to remind us that, oh yeah, there's a tiny man dressed up as a mouse and isn't that cute - but in the end they prove to be deployed with far more purpose and care than I initially gave them credit for after the first 15 minutes or so. I did not anticipate the dark turn the story would take, but the delicacy with which Gondry handles it makes it all worth it.

Now, I have to hedge a bit on the credit, because the U.S. version is different from the one that screened internationally beginning last year. That one clocked in at well over two hours, and from what I understand, garnered a somewhat sour reaction. The film was then re-edited, but I can't be sure whether Gondry believes in the new cut - and believes this is the best version of Mood Indigo - or if his hand was forced, and the longer version demands to be seen. If it's available in the States someday, I'll give it a look. All I can judge is this 94-minute cut, and despite my reservations, I came away impressed, and surprisingly moved.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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