Since he directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, you walk into director Michel Gondry’s latest expecting some surreal elements. But Mood Indigo is so aggressively antic, so drunk on whimsy, I thought I’d have to dive through a window rather than watch more than five or ten minutes. To this day, the idea of having to sit through Moulin Rouge again makes me break out in a cold sweat. And Wes Anderson’s accelerating tweeness made me take a pass on the second half of The Life Aquatic and all of Moonrise Kingdom.
The last time a movie, for me, got the balance of heart, smarts and whimsy just right was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. So it makes sense that Gondry has poached that movie’s breakout star, Audrey Tautou, for Mood Indigo. We don’t meet her right away, though. First you have to adjust to the crazed world of our hero, Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy Parisian who lives in a sprawling apartment, part of which is a railway car stretched high above the city streets. He’s invented a “pianocktail,” a percussion instrument that mixes drinks according to the tune you strike on its keyboard. His personal chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) is also his lawyer; he cooks simply to relieve stress. The dishes he serves are terrifyingly manic, depicted via stop-motion animation (among other intentionally cheesy retro effects in the movie).
In this world, playing some kinds of music, especially a Duke Ellington song, can cause a square room to turn round. At parties, when people dance the latest craze, le biglemoi, they defy gravity; their legs become as big and twisty as those foam-rubber noodles kids float on in swimming pools. Oh, and there is a strange, tiny human-mouse hybrid (Sacha Bourdo), which silently observes Colin’s household from his multiple mouse-sized habitats. (No one is quite sure, however, if this creature is male or female.)
That’s just a tiny sampling of Mood Indigo’s insane, unrelenting flights of fancy. It’s adapted from L’Écume des Jours, or, among other English translations, Froth on the Daydream, a 1947 absurdist novel by Boris Vian.
From this description alone, Indigo sounds like the sort of movie that should make my head explode. A funny thing happened as I watched, though. I started to delight in the nonstop lunacy and originality. Maybe that’s because its fanciful extremes are tethered to an eternal dramatic structure: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl face tribulations together.
In this case, Chloe grows ill. Naturally, in this case, it’s because a water lily is discovered to be growing inside her lungs. And the only cure is to treat her with other kinds of flowers. Mais, bien sûr!
Some scenes and effects in Mood Indigo are inspired and clumsily poetic, poetically clumsy. Colin and Chloe take an aerial tour of Paris, dangling from a cloud-shaped car swinging from a giant crane. At a wedding, the minister insists he will only marry the winners of an impromptu go-kart race through his cathedral. (“We can change the whole narrative,” exclaims a supporting character, as she races with her boyfriend to literally beat our heroes to the altar and hijack the plot.) And once Colin and Chloe are married (spoiler), the actors are shot walking underwater, “floating” down the aisle toward the exit — a superbly simple, sweet metaphor for the elated sense of suspension love imparts.
None of this would work without the right actors. While Mood Indigo is not in the same league as Amélie, Tautou’s gamine magic in that film carries over to the new one. Where other performers might be overwhelmed or upstaged by the general mania, she and Duris greet every latest peculiarity with the open-eyed glee of children. As for Duris, always an engaging French anchor, he seems to be having more fun than he did as the womanizing navel-gazer in the three Cédric Klapisch movies that started with L’Auberge Espagnol and just wrapped up with Chinese Puzzle.
I don’t want to oversell Mood Indigo. Maybe I like it because I really thought I wouldn’t. Its excesses can easily send some people fleeing. In tone and execution, the individual elements don’t fully cohere — but there is a wholeness to the lunacy of the vision, sustained by the director and his game cast. Do I ever want to see it again? Probably not. Am I glad I saw it once? Yes, absolutely — which is a lot more than I can say about Moulin Rouge or anything made by Baz Luhrmann. (As for Wes Anderson, he is back on my playlist after The Grand Budapest Hotel.)
Mood Indigo. With Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou. Directed by Michel Gondry. In French with subtitles. 94 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.