Michel Gondry has had a very odd, uncategorizable career. He’s perhaps best known for his hand-crafted lo-fi design sense that feeds into or grows out of a playful, surrealist perspective on the world, although he’s also capable of more straightforward (although still playful) documentary films like Block Party. I’ve seen six of his ten feature films, along with a bunch of his music videos, and I guess I’d say he’s best when he’s working with another powerful creative personality, such as Charlie Kaufman in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dave Chappelle in Block Party. Thus I was hopeful at the prospect of Mood Indigo, which is an adaptation of the 1947 novel L’écume des jours by the French writer Boris Vian. The buzz about the film was that it was full of Gondry’s trademark design and animation work, and I hoped that adapting another writer’s book would guard against the aimlessness that I thought both The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind suffered from.
I hadn’t heard of Boris Vian, but apparently he’s quite famous in the French-speaking world. L’écume des jours has been adapted on film three times before, including a Japanese version in 2001, and it was also adapted as an opera by the Russian composer Edison Denisov in 1981. The novel has been translated into English three times, under the titles Froth on the Daydream and Foam of Daze. “L’écume” is French for froth or scum, and IMDb claims that the colloquial meaning of the phrase is the remnant of daydreams. Vian’s book is considered a work of surrealism, and so it seems to be right up Gondry’s alley.
So after all that preface, I’ll say I had mixed feelings about the movie. The first half or so left me feeling pretty cold, as it showed Gondry at his most aggressively weird and nonsensical. The visual inventiveness is at a very high level, but it felt like an assault. The characters were unpleasant when they weren’t being too cute and childish. When the protagonist, Colin (Romain Duris), meets the love interest, Chloe (Audrey Tautou), it was like a nightmare romantic comedy. Not a parody, not a satire, but just unrelieved magical realist tweeness. I hated them both.
Well, maybe that’s the way Gondry wanted it. Maybe at heart he’s an avant gardist who wants to attack and subvert narrative conventions and escapist identification. Maybe all the mad visual invention is at the service of reminding us that this is an artificial world, and maybe he’s embracing the fact that dreams can be nightmares. Certainly as the film progresses, it gets darker and darker, and I found myself warming up to it as it got less twee and more anguished. After a while it did begin to feel like a very strange nightmare version of the standard meet-cute-and-die-of-a-disease story convention. (Think Love Story.) Weirdly, the alienation caused by the happy parts of the story gives way to identification in the tragic parts. Is that my personal problem, or is that intentional?
It certainly left me curious about the novel and the other adaptations of it. Vian seems a fascinating, complicated figure, from what I’ve been reading about him. (Amongst many other cool items on his resume, he apparently translated two Raymond Chandler novels and A.E. van Vogt’s The Word of Null-A into French.) As for Gondry, I’m not sure what to make of him at this point. I can’t say I really liked Mood Indigo over all, but I do love his design sense and quirky sense of humor. In the abstract I like his willingness to take chances and follow his literal dreams. The results are more often than not a mess, however, and I’m beginning to wonder whether he will ever do anything as great as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again.