BY STEVE ERICKSON | French director Michel Gondry, best known for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and his music videos, has an aesthetic one could call un-naturalism. He’s made two documentaries, one of which turned a feature-length conversation with Noam Chomsky into animation.
Gondry’s latest film, “Mood Indigo,” is adapted from a novel by French author Boris Vian, published in English in two different translations (one with the same title as the film, the other as “Foam of the Days”), and it kicks off with a tracking shot through a room of typists slaving away at Vian’s text. Gondry imagines living, insect-like alarm clocks, mice that clean windows by scratching the dust off with their paws, and a “pianocktail,” which mixes drinks according to the notes one plays on a piano. Even if Vian originated these ideas, Gondry brings them to life as images — no mean feat.
“Mood Indigo,” however, succeeds only as long as its characters are having fun. Gondry’s sensibility doesn’t fit the tragic turn the story eventually takes.
Colin (Romain Duris) is a rich man who lives in a apartment reflecting his eccentricities, such as his pianocktail invention. His chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) prepares dishes he learns from TV cooking shows. His best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) is obsessed with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton) and has a new girlfriend, who’s related to Nicolas. That triggers Colin’s interest in finding a partner, and he decides to attend a party.
There, he meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and quickly falls in love with her. Their life of picnics and meetings at the Eiffel Tower comes to a halt when she falls ill. Her sickness is suitably bizarre. A water lily has begun growing in her right lung. Colin attempts to cure her by filling their apartment with fresh flowers. The flowers and medical bills put a strain on his savings.
“Mood Indigo” may be compared to “Amélie,” especially because of the presence of that film’s star, Tautou. However, Gondry’s visual style is well thought-out and a lot more pleasurable than that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. As far as I can tell, he relies on analog special effects rather than CGI. The living alarm clocks were visibly moved frame by frame. Gondry imagines a whole world that’s completely unrealistic yet always feels believable. The film feels like a fantasy from the ‘90s heyday of the “space age bachelor pad music” revival.
The English title comes from a Duke Ellington song, and the majority of the film’s music does as well. Colin hates today’s pop. The film’s time frame is never clear. In an interview, Gondry says this is deliberate: “It’s set at an undefined date. Not 1947 and not 2013. There are references to the 1970s, because [production designer] Stéphane Rozenbaum and I are the same age and we picked objects that reminded us of our youth. Many of my visual choices are linked to my childhood, like Colin’s apartment for example.”
Vian loved jazz, which obviously comes across in “Mood Indigo.” He also identified with African-American culture so strongly that he wrote a novel from a black man’s perspective and then claimed to be its French translator. The character of Nicolas might seem uncomfortably servile at first, but as the film progresses he comes across as a partner in Colin’s adventures, not just his chef. If the role has echoes of actor Sy’s Magic Negro turn in “The Intouchables,” “Mood Indigo” is devoid of that film’s “blacks are so weird and exotic” attitude. Here, everyone is weird and exotic.
“Mood Indigo” kicks off with bright colors, virtuoso tracking shots, and characters who put on three-piece suits to attend dogs’ birthday parties. To say that it’s an exercise in style would be an understatement. As with Wes Anderson, little of the real world makes it into Gondry’s world.
Anderson’s films, however, have often flirted with melancholy, even tragedy, as did Gondry’s best film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I can only imagine that film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, adapting Vian. I suspect he’d do a better job with the downbeat conclusion than Gondry and co-writer Luc Bossi did. Exhilaration suits Gondry far better than doom, even after he switches from color to black-and-white to alter the mood.
MOOD INDIGO | Directed by Michel Gondry | Drafthouse Films | In French with English subtitles | Opens Jul. 18 | Landmark Sunshine, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth