Michel Gondry has an intensely visual imagination, and you get the feeling watching his films that he doesn’t see any real limits to what is possible on screen. He’s been able to play around in Hollywood a bit over the years, with some success, most memorably with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ten years ago. But when he makes movies in his home country of France, he seems freer, less inhibited. His latest picture is called Mood Indigo, and in it he displays a wild inventiveness, so visually stunning that it’s difficult to describe.
Romain Duris plays a wealthy fun-loving Parisian named Colin. He lives in an imaginary world where objects move of their own accord, including his doorbell that turns into a crawling beetle when it’s rung, and a piano that makes cocktails in a mixture determined by the notes played on it. His friends are the lawyer and live-in chef Nicolas, played by Omar Sy, and the half-crazed intellectual Chick, played by Gad Elmaleh, who’s a follower of the philosopher Jon-Sol Partre. After Colin meets the lovely Chloe, played by Audrey Tatou, at a birthday party for a friend’s dog, they rapidly fall in love. What follows is a succession of wild romantic escapades, including a trip in an amusement cloud ride lifted over the city by crane, and a wedding in which the main participants race up the steps of the cathedral in little cars. This attempt at description only hints at the delightful nonsense bursting forth at almost every moment in the film, and scored to a variety of evocative music, particularly the jazz of Duke Ellington, from which one tune the American release of the picture got its title.
The film’s exuberant excess, we eventually find, has a point. Gondry and his co-screenwriter Luc Bossi have adapted a well-regarded novel by Boris Vian. Not having read that, I can only report my impressions. The film translates into visual terms, with a technique that reminded me of Walt Disney combined with Terry Gilliam, the beautiful and all-consuming experience of being in love. And once having done that, having pushed us to the edge, this playful world gradually gives way to—life, real life, or to put it more plainly, limitation and mortality. Chloe becomes ill, and Colin’s struggle is to push away, as far as he can, the possible intrusion of death into their paradise. The colors become darker, the fantasy starts to fail, and in this bitterness we are shown also what love means, beyond the illusion—for all these marvelous and whimsical effects are in fact, an illusion, as we know while we’re watching, but also as we find through living. Gondry goes inside the romance and plays it out until it bursts like a bubble. There is no love without loss, no sweet without bitter. Mood Indigo creates all its poetry from that simple truth.