There are films that tell great stories and there are films that work of pieces of cinematic art. It is a rare thing indeed for a film to be able to cross over the threshold and deliver both goals. The last two Wes Anderson films did. Michel Gondry’s 2004 masterpiece ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND clearly did (hard to believe that film is ten years old). I remember hunting down everything Gondry did after seeing that film, only to discover I had been a fan for years. Gondry has given us some of the most memorable music video images that ever graced the medium – the conquering teddy bear of Bjork’s “Human Behavior,” the one shot surreal hospital room of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” and the lego rock of the White Stripe’s “Fell In Love With A Girl.”
Michel Gondry’s new film MOOD INDIGO is a little bit like the best parts of all those videos, employing stop motion cinematography in a diesalpunk surreal world where people fly in cloud ‘cars’ hung from cranes and miniature humans in mice costumes don’t look out of place running around tubes in a house. The film, released by Drafthouse Films in the US and hitting Austin this Friday, is a veritable visual feast. This is a film that needs to be seen on a big screen that can take you away to another world, a world where typewriters speed past Mad-Men-esque secretaries on conveyer belts as they punch out the plot of the story. From the very moment the film begins, Gondry treats us to one ridiculously improbable invention after another, such as a GPS system that is just a live video of a man pointing to a map with an arrow or a proton gun that needs to be warmed with human body heat for 24 hours to work. Probably the most memorable is the pianocktail, an upright piano that automatically crafts a drink from a variety of possible liquids and fruits (and eggs) according to the notes and chords you play, each one perfectly matching your mood. I sat in awe through the whole experience, overwhelmed by the creativity in every frame of the film. Gondry himself admits his fascination with objects, saying in his press notes: “The idea that things are almost more alive than people suits me well. When I was a child, I’d often take objects for people, even to the extent of believing they were ganging up on me!”
The story that tries its darndest not to get lost in the film concerns a well-to-do young man, Colin, who lives with his cook in a bizarre home crammed with the latest in ‘technology,’ some of which he has invented himself. When his friend Crick comes to breakfast, he realizes he is the only one without a girlfriend, and sets out to correct that. He discovers the similarly eccentric Chloe at a party and they have a whirlwind love affair, leading quickly to marriage. It is on their honeymoon the film starts to descend into the dark, as the couple enjoys a split-screen picnic in which Colin finds himself in the rain and Chloe is covered in sunshine. After the honeymoon, Chloe becomes sick and Colin spends his fortune to get her back to health. For Gondry, Colin’s situation was one of the most real in his created world, saying: “In the second part of the film, Colin is worn down by his work and Chloé’s illness, and everybody is yelling at him. I have lived with a wife suffering from a serious illness—from which mine fortunately recovered—and I know that feeling of shame you have because you’re lucky enough to be healthy.”
MOOD INDIGO is an adaptation of a Boris Vian book, “L’Écume des Jours,” and Gondry came onto the project after co-writer and producer Luc Bossi had written the first draft of the adaptation. “We reworked it together, but we kept his idea of having this great big workshop at the beginning of the story where the book is produced,” says Gondry, “to my mind, it shows that the book is inescapable. It is concrete and indestructible.” The film, like the book, has a very fatalistic mood. The opening of the story is so bright and hopeful, and thrusts itself at you with an almost frenetic pace; there is nowhere to go but down. With the book being produced in the factory, it is clear that Colin and Chloe’s fate is already written. As the situation worsens, Colin’s homes decays and actually shrinks, “your standards have lowered” says his friend. Further along, as the story takes a tragic turn, color retreats from their world completely, and film finishes in black and white.
The world of MOOD INDIGO just breathtaking, and the title itself should cue you that it is more about the mood than the story. That being said, the visual imagery perfectly reflects the progress of the characters and the actors do their best to live up to the vividness around them. Audrey Tautou is especially charming as Chloe, and seems to be the only one semi-aware of the absurdity of their life. At one point she asks Colin to see who can be “most incredibly normalist” as they walk. Gondry says: “Chloé has to find the strength to reassure everyone else so that everyone else can reassure her in turn.” Romain Duris plays Colin, and he says he was inescapably drawn to “the universe of Michel Gondry and the magic of his imagination. … I studied the visual arts myself, and I’m very interested in ‘handcrafted’ projects that involve interesting ideas. So getting involved in that world and meeting Michel were very important to me.”
But the true star of MOOD INDIGO is the scifi production design, as if the mechanical world had once more overtaken the digital one. “My starting point was a book written in 1947, prior to the digital age,” explains Gondry, “back then, my grandfather invented a synthesizer—the calvioline—which worked with valves. I try to avoid nostalgia but it was a time when I could still understand what was going on in technological terms.” The world, despite being interconnected through tv tubes and such, represents more of a utopian that dystopian reality. “I was also keen to avoid a kind of Orwellian retrofuturism,” says Gondry, “I didn’t want to show the studio where the book is being written—in a slightly ridiculous way because each worker is assigned one single sentence—in too negative a manner.”
MOOD INDIGO is a special and beautiful film. It defies the cgi-obsessed trend of studio films, and explodes with imagination. Although the pictures often overwhelm the action, there is just enough story to keep it moving forward. My only complaint might be that with so much artifice around them, it is hard to really feel anything of depth for the characters. I can see them feeling, and see how it affects the world in which they live, but I always feel like I am watching an expertly crafted piece of art, rather than really being drawn in at an emotional level. Still, this is not one to be missed. Especially on the big screen where Vian’s imagery can be fully expienced through the expert lens of Gondry.
Michel Gondry’s MOOD INDIGO opens in Austin this Friday.