At a time when so much filmmaking is marked by rampant laziness, it’s both refreshing and a little daunting to encounter a film of such nonstop invention and creativity as Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo. Some may find the film perplexing in its fantasy. Others may find the constant invention exhausting. In the latter regard, I freely confess that my initial viewing of Mood Indigo was … startling, to put it mildly. The first five minutes just never slowed down, to the point that it seemed like overkill. (Some will doubtless say that it is overkill.) But I quickly realized that the only way to approach the film was just to surrender to it and go with the flow. Immediately after that first viewing — but before tackling the whole thing a second time — I took a second look at the beginning and its fast-paced flood of fantasticated images (all set to Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”). Having a feel for the whole movie and knowing where it was going, the opening felt just right on a second viewing — neither exhausting, nor overkill.
Gondry’s film is an adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream), which may account for the fact that while three Duke Ellington recordings appear in the film, “Mood Indigo” does not. (This may also be due to cutting, since I understand the U.S. version is considerably shortened from the French original.) Regardless, the title Mood Indigo ultimately suits the tone of the movie. While the film never loses its sense of invention, what starts — or seems to start — as quirky, hyperstylized fantasy becomes increasingly dark as the film progresses. This is deceptive, too, because the undercurrent of darkness is there all along, but the characters — and to some degree the audience — don’t see it. And while I’ve described the film as comedy-tragedy, the ending is more bittersweet and weirdly celebratory than tragic. While, yes, the film grows very dark — so dark that the color is slowly drained from the film — I would never call it depressing.
The film starts with a quote from Boris Vian announcing, “This story is completely true, since I made it up from beginning to end.” But what is the story? Well, stripped of most things that make Mood Indigo a breathlessly mesmerizing film, the story is pretty simple and — Gondry suggests in the way it’s pieced together from bits of a manuscript being written by lots of scribes with constantly moving typewriters on a kind of assembly line — more universal than it might seem. Colin (Romain Duris) is a comfortably-off young man, living in a marvelous set of apartments apparently joined by a train car. He has a personal chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy), who prepares fantastic meals with the help of a strangely interactive TV chef (Alain Chabat) and a hyperintelligent mouse (Sacha Bourdo) of indeterminate gender. (The mouse, in fact, is one of the film’s most likable characters.) He has a good friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and he has a good time inventing strange Rube Goldberg inventions (the piano cocktail being his latest). His world is so perfect that he can even play the sunbeams coming through the windows like an upright bass .
But something is missing — a love life. That presents itself at a party where he meets Chloé (Audrey), whom, after a fantasy courtship only Gondry would attempt (and pull off), he marries. But on their honeymoon, she contracts a strange ailment. How strange? Well, she’s growing a water lily in her lung. The treatment, according to a very strange doctor (Gondry himself), involves some very odd pills (involving golden carrots and mechanical rabbits) and surrounding Chloé with flowers. Between the expense of these increasingly weird treatments and supporting Chick’s self-destructive obsession with the writer-philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton) — a pipe-smoking egghead and cult figure based (unsubtly) on Vian’s friend, Jean-Paul Sartre — Colin soon finds his money gone and his world darkening, even as Chloé gets no better.
That almost certainly sounds more grim than the film is — though, make no mistake, Mood Indigo is not simply a lot of fun. The sadness that hovers over the film and finally closes in on it is very real. But — and this is key — Gondry never loses sight of the strange magic that holds his film together. It’s all surreal and fanciful. One part Max Fleischer “rubber-hose” style animation to one part René Magritte — with a shot of Dadaism and a dash of jazz — might be a fair summation of the recipe. But it’s all also pure Gondry at his most creative. It may, in fact, be his best film to date. Certainly, it’s his most breathtakingly creative one — and one of the year’s best films. (Plus, it explains how Internet searches actually work.) But it definitely won’t be to everyone’s liking. Then again, it doesn’t try to be — and why should it? Not Rated but contains adult themes and subtitles.