Michel’s Playhouse, by Josh Long
The world of Michel Gondry’s films is a frenetic, surrealistic one filled with bright colors, unorthodox animation, and of course, oversized human appendages. It stands to reason that he would be a fan of French writer Boris Vian, known for his wildly inventive and surrealistic work, produced in the 40s and 50s. Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des jours is possibly his best known work. The title has been translated as Froth on the Daydream, or Foam on the Daze; Gondry’s adaptation of the novel doesn’t bother with the wordplay and calls it Mood Indigo, after the Duke Ellington song of the same name.
The film tells the story of the romance between eccentric bachelor Colin (Romaine Duris) and his idealistic beauty, Chloé (Audrey Tautou). They meet by chance at a party, fall quickly in love, and romp through a Paris as lively and imaginative as they are. Things take a more serious turn when Chloé develops an illness in her lungs and slowly deteriorates. Also peopling their world are Nicholas (Omar Sy), the friendly lawyer who takes it on himself to become Colin’s personal chef, and Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a bookish type obsessed with a philosopher with the thinly veiled satirical name “Jean-Sol Partre.”
The film’s first and most obvious element to hit you is the playhouse-quality spectacle. TV screens talk and interact with characters, Nicholas’ dishes dance around through stop motion, Colin’s very home seems whimsically built out of pieces of other structures (the train car hallway/bridge stands out). It all makes for a very fun and lively world. The film easily and quickly takes you out of the real world, and places you into its own imagination. It’s no new ground for Gondry, but it’s done as well as ever. More importantly, it fits perfectly with the style of Vian’s book. Film as a medium is uniquely suited to show what the book tells: a world that changes to adapt to the emotions of its characters. At the movie’s beginning, life is a joyous free-for-all. The lovers ride a cloud car through the skies of Paris, drive race cars to their wedding, dine in a field that is half sunny, half rain. The style and setting in these moments is reminiscent of the wackier French new wave (e.g. Zazie dans le Metro). But as Chloé’s condition becomes more serious, the world is darker and duller. Cobwebs grow around Colin’s once bright and cheery abode. Characters age years in just a few days. It’s the perfect way to express the sadness growing in the hearts of the characters.
As enjoyable as the visuals are, there is a point during the lighter romp of the film where it becomes tiring. We’ve seen them having fun over and over, so now what? The film eventually moves on, but it only after it’s beginning to feel substance-less. This is made all the more confusing by the fact that this cut of the film, “Gondry’s shorter, preferred cut for American audiences,” is a full 36 minutes shorter than the original released in France. Ignoring the fact that this qualifier sounds a little insulting, we’re left to wonder what the differences are, and why the change was made. Apparently critics who’ve seen the original cut cited it as too long, so is Gondry bowing to the whim of his critics, or being forced to make changes more palatable to an international audience? Some media suggests that the original cut requires more knowledge of the source material, in which case I have to wonder whether it’s the mistake of a director too close to the novel, or if that’s the opinion of studios with no faith in the viewing populace. Either way, it’s difficult to tell whether this is the movie Gondry wants us to see, whether it’s the result of a bullying studio, and whether this is the best possible cut of the film. I should note that the ending of this cut does feel rather abrupt.
Another important thing to note is that there will clearly be a lot lost on English-speaking viewers. Vian is known for his clever wordplay. For instance, the novel names one of “Jean-Sol Partre’s” books La Lettre et le Néon (The Letter and Neon), a homonym of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness). It’s a clever pun in French, but wouldn’t translate without explanation. There are certainly similar puns and wordplay in the film (Chloé even mentions how she enjoys Nicholas’ wordplay), but it’s sadly not the sort of thing that can come across in subtitles. English speaking audiences will unfortunately have to accept that several jokes are going to go over their heads.
All things considered, Mood Indigo is a very enjoyable film. The imaginative set and whimsical tone is wonderfully charming; the transformation of the world through tragedy is both sobering and beautiful. Gondry has given this story a brilliant adaptation, and one that fits comfortably into his oeuvre.