Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aïssa Maïga, Charlotte Le Bon. (2014, NR, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 15, 2014
Mood Indigo will make you wish you’d paid more attention in high school French class. It’s such a colorful whirr of geegaws and doodads and other strange delights that pausing to read the subtitles means you’ll miss some of the spectacle.
In this fairy tale-like romance from director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the independently wealthy Colin (Duris) falls in love with the lovely, wide-eyed Chloé (Tautou). For a short while they live an especially charmed life, surrounded by witty and attentive friends. The blindingly charismatic Nicolas (Sy) is counsel and in many ways caretaker to the daffy pair, while new lovers Chick (Elmaleh) and Alise (Maïga) bond over their shared love of the philosopher “Jean-Sol Partre.” (The film is adapted from the 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours by the French surrealist Boris Vian, a contemporary of Sartre.)
Gondry’s signature homemade aesthetic perfectly animates the nutty inventions that are commonplace in this particular world: an overenthusiastic doorbell that has to be squashed like a cockroach, a “pianocktail” that assembles an apéritif as you tickle the ivories (“you get a nostalgic taste from minor chords”). The social mores here are just as cockamamie, as when a dour priest insists two couples race in miniature cars to the wedding chapel; he’s only marrying one of them today. Surprised at the opportunity, Alise jumps at the chance. “We can change the whole narrative, become the heroes!” she beams. The moment punctures Mood Indigo’s elaborate artifice, to moving effect, in a gentle reminder that every person has a story to tell. Still, the humans in Gondry’s tale are too often overwhelmed by the fantastical, frantic effects.
A collaborative spirit dominates the film’s sunny first half, wherein Colin drains his bathtub and, in the process, waters his downstairs neighbor’s plants, and a celebrity chef talks through the TV to personally coach Nicolas through an eel dish. There’s also the matter of a curious command center of assembly-line typists (using mechanical typewriters, bien sûr – there’s no room in Gondry’s loving temple of antiquated technology for something so secular as a power plug). The typists appear to be writing the story of Colin and Chloé, and they experience a kind of contact joy from nearness to the happy lovers.
And then it all goes dark, quite literally. As a mysterious illness takes over, the color is leached from the film stock until finally everything is rendered in blacks and grays. The spirit of togetherness goes out with the light: Colin’s focus tightly narrows to Chloé, Chick’s devotion to Partre becomes all-consuming, and Nicolas begs to help shoulder the sadness. And there is so much sadness. It’s hard to imagine any American film getting away with this kind of plummet, from giddiness to slit-your-wrists gloom, and that may very well be why it took so long for the film to secure a U.S. distributor. (It premiered stateside at Fantastic Fest 2013 and is now being distributed nationally by Drafthouse Films.) As a coherent narrative with conventional satisfactions, Mood Indigo misses the mark. But as an evoker of so many moods, it’s transportive.
A version of this review was previously published online.