Michel Gondry's seventh film is visually inventive but a self-indulgent mess of ideas
“Let’s see who can be the most normal!” squeaks Audrey Tautou in Mood Indigo, every bit as mawkish and elfin as she was in Amélie back in 2001. She’s playing a game with her new hubby (Romain Duris), but it’s surely doomed to fail: director Michel Gondry’s characters couldn’t do ‘normal’ if they tried.
As director of the sublime Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and countless brilliant music videos for the likes of Björk, The White Stripes and Daft Punk, Gondry has one of the great visual imaginations of our time. And, as director of the less than sublime The Science Of Sleep and this, his seventh and perhaps most personal feature film to date, he’s also the author of a capricious brand of whimsy that makes Tim Burton look like Michael Bay in particularly plodding mood.
Actually, Mood Indigo isn’t wholly Gondry’s vision – it’s an adaptation of a novel, L’Ecume Des Jours by French writer and polymath Boris Vian, little known outside his home country but a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre in his day, and inspiration to the young Serge Gainsbourg.
The story centres on a wealthy inventor and gentleman of leisure, Colin (Duris), who embarks on a whirlwind romance with Chloé (Tautou), only for her to fall seriously ill with a water lily growing in her lung while on honeymoon. Colin spends all his money footing the bill for her treatment, and attempts to find work as her condition deteriorates.
Meanwhile there’s a head-scratching subplot involving Colin’s mate Chick, who becomes obsessed with a writer called Jean Sol-Partre (geddit?), but the story – when spelled out in such prosaic terms, at least – isn’t really the point. In Vian’s novel, the universe his characters inhabit changes to reflect their emotions. This gives Gondry free rein to indulge in all manner of visual mischief, assimilating doorbells with legs, underwater weddings and see-through cars into his eccentric visual language.
It’s all as visually inventive as you’d expect. But it’s also a mess, the lashings of self-referentiality and elegantly constructed sight gags failing to disguise a sense that Gondry is cluttering up the screen with half-formed ideas from old music videos. It’s a shame, because he obviously has big themes in mind (death, how the artist-as-dreamer must reconcile himself with the real world), but without a Charlie Kaufman on board to knock the script into shape, they end up getting lost in the overly kooky mix.
“As you go through life, spaces seem smaller,” says a minor character in a rare moment of poignancy during the film’s latter half, echoing all of Gondry’s evident longing for a return to childhood. It’s odd, because you feel his world would open up so much more if he could only put the brakes on some of his more childish fancies.