You don’t go to a Michel Gondry film expecting the conventional, and the director’s latest fantasia, Mood Indigo, won’t let you down in that regard. In fact, the film is sort of “Gondry off the leash,” if such a thing could exist: it’s stuffed with so much surrealism and visual whimsy that it threatens to overload the viewer with just how busy and utterly untethered to reality it is. Many of the images are inventive enough to keep one’s attention, but can the story and characters do the same?
Mood Indigo is based on a 1947 French novel by Boris Vian called Froth on the Daydream and is faithful to much of its narrative. A wealthy young man named Colin (Romain Duris) leads a life of ease, eating meals prepared by loyal cook and valet Nicolas (Omar Sy), hanging around with buddy Chick (Gal Elmaleh) and working on his invention, the pianocktail (yes, a piano that makes cocktails). But when Chick begins a relationship with a woman named Alise (Aissa Maiga), Colin realizes he wants the same and quickly meets and falls for Chloe (Audrey Tautou of Amelie).
Their blissful courtship is a swirl of happy frolicking in a world that seems devoid of even the most basic natural laws. It eventually leads to marriage, but it’s all short-lived as life finally takes a darker turn for our four friends. Chick’s obsession with buying everything ever written by the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre drains him of money and sours his relationship with Alise, while Colin and Chloe also face financial ruin but a far graver future as well when Chloe is diagnosed with a water lily growing on her lung.
The first half of Mood Indigo will either turn you off or pull you in, depending on your patience for whimsy and stylization. Our characters do not live in anything approaching the real world: Colin has a pet mouse (actually a human dressed in a mouse costume), Nicolas gets help in the kitchen from a chef on TV (who hands things to him through the screen) and inanimate objects, including food, move and breathe incessantly with a life of their own. The early stages of our two leads’ relationship is played out against a dizzying ballet of non-stop visual trickery that starts out fun and sweet, but which can quickly become exasperating.
It’s true that after 45 relatively plot-free minutes or so — save for Colin pursuing Chloe and winning her heart, which never seems in doubt — I started to wonder how Gondry was going to fill the second half of his bit of fluff. When the movie finally turns sadder, the kaleidoscopic energy, playful mutations and weird little stop-motion vignettes mostly fall by the wayside. Colin and Chloe’s house begins to decay from within, Nicolas starts aging beyond his years and the color gradually drains out of the film until its final scenes are played in black and white.
The film’s last 15 minutes or so are affecting, but the 75 before that are less so and the shift in tone halfway through is jarring. It’s not helped by both lead actors, who are rather too cutesy for us to ever fully believe them as people, while their relationship is portrayed more like two little children romping around an oversized playground than two adults falling in love. The supporting cast is better — Sy brings a quiet dignity to Nicolas and Maiga gives the most grounded of the main performances — but the romper room tone persists until Gondry yanks it away. It’s just too bad that the attempted gravity of the film’s second half is tied to live-action cartoon characters.
Despite its flaws, however, I kind of liked Mood Indigo. I found the visual inventiveness of the movie’s first half fresh and often funny — especially with its hand-crafted look and effects — and there is something earnest about Gondry’s approach that can be attractive even as it dances on the edge of being sugary enough to make you gag. But unlike Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his masterpiece from a decade ago, Mood Indigo doesn’t have a lot going on under its shiny, playful surface. It’s all whimsy until it isn’t, and then there’s nothing there to take its place.
Mood Indigo is out in theaters today.