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PARIS — What do a miniature mouse-man, a walking doorbell, a hall of rotating typewriters and a dining room table on roller skates have in common? You guessed it: They’re all part of Michel Gondry’s latest opus wackyus, Mood Indigo (L’Ecume des jours), adapted from Boris Vian’s famous novel of the post-war, jazz-loving, pipe-smoking, Saint-Germain-des-Pres epoque.
Yet not only are these and many other handcrafted, stop-motion creations — including guitar strings made of sunlight and a pair of shoes that hop around like puppies — the major players here, but they are literally tossed together during the opening sequence of what soon becomes an exhausting pièce d’indulgence from the veteran video/feature director, who can never quite shape all the bric-a-brac, not to mention an all-star Gallic cast, into a workable whole.
The experience is rather like watching a very long, very expensive (the film was budgeted at €18M, or $23M) episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse that’s been co-directed by Terry Gilliam and Salvador Dali, and Gondry pummels the viewer with a two-hour-plus visual assault that’s easier to admire than it is to enjoy.
A wide local rollout by Studiocanal should see strong first-frame returns, but this surreal semi-period piece has little staying power, while overseas action will be concentrated in Francophone territories and art house markets where the Gondry label still means something.
Granted, transforming Vian’s experimental 1947 book into a comprehensible narrative is a little like trying to turn William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine into a sci-fi blockbuster, or Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow into an HBO miniseries. Yet instead of cutting some of the novel’s more absurd elements in order to focus on the romantic tragedy at its core, Gondry and co-writer/producer Luc Bossi have decided to take the writer’s words à la lettre, replicating his many literary flights-of-fancy and tossing in everything but the kitchen sink — although there’s one of those too…out of which pops a papier mâché eel (again, during the film’s opening sequence).
Once you manage to put aside all the clutter and noise — which is by no means an easy task — Mood Indigo actually tells a fairly classic boy-meets-girl sob story, where a kindhearted dreamer named Colin (Romain Duris) crosses paths with a pretty, quick-witted gal named Chloe (Audrey Tautou), and, after much wooing, manages to win her over.
But just when things seem to be peachy between them, Chloe contracts a dangerous pulmonary disease (caused by a lilypad growing in her lung — clearly an artsy metaphor for tuberculosis), forcing Colin to give up his bohemian lifestyle in order to pay for Chloe’s expensive medical treatments, one of which consists of rubbing dry flowers on her naked chest.
Yet Gondry seems much less interested in exploring the emotional repercussions of Colin and Chloe’s plight than in all the crazy concoctions he and production designer Stephane Rozenbaum can insert within a single scene or space. Thus, Colin’s chaotic trailer-like apartment, which he shares with cook/lawyer/best friend, Nicolas (Omar Sy, Intouchables), becomes a testing ground for various makeshift creatures and gadgets, as well as constantly morphing set designs that mimic the characters’ fledging relationship — the result being that you spend a lot more time watching the walls than the drama at hand, which is often hard to follow anyway.
Sometimes, the technique does yield impressive results, such as when the two take a magical float ride above Paris, or when the gang dances together with giant jazz legs to a televised performance of Duke Ellington’s “Chloe” (which is said to have inspired Vian’s heroine). One bit, where a piano rigged with tubes and beakers transforms into a cocktail maker, is particularly uncanny, if completely unrelated to anything else.
But with such chaos stretching from the first to the last frame, Gondry cannot sustain things for the long-run, and Mood Indigo often feels like a movie best viewed in short segments — not unlike the director’s many groundbreaking music videos. For sure, it’s easy to lament the fact that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is no longer a collaborator, but there’s something to be said for being able to tell an involving story within a phantasmagorical universe (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), instead of overindulging in props and low-fi effects that drown the plot out completely.
And despite a top-notch French cast that also includes comic Gad Elmaleh as Colin’s fanatical buddy, Chick, and Philippe Torreton as the coveted intellectual guru Jean-Sol Partre (get it?), the performances often feel overcooked and cartoonish, even if Duris and Tautou share a few strong moments together, especially when things start turning sour.
Actually, one of the better turns winds up coming from Gondry himself, who plays Chloe’s kindhearted, incompetent doctor in a completely straight-faced manner. It’s as if the filmmaker, once on the other side of the lens, were trying his best to tone down a work that seems to be forever blossoming out of control.
Production companies: Brio Films, Studiocanal, France 2 Cinema, Scope Pictures Herodiade 7
Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon, Alain Chabat
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriters: Michel Gondry, Luc Bossi, based on the novel by Boris Vian
Producer: Luc Bossi
Executive producer: Xavier Castano
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Stephane Rozenbaum
Costume designer: Florence Fontaine
Music: Etienne Charry
Editor: Marie-Charlotte Moreau
No rating, 130 minutes
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