I confess I’m at a disadvantage here. I’ve only seen the shortened North American release version; it was cut from around 130 minutes in France to around 90 minutes here. This was apparently in response to mixed reviews from the French release, and according to some, especially Boyd van Hoeij at Indiewire, the film is better off for the cuts. But I’m not so sure. Because while not without its charms, the Mood Indigo I saw was frenetic and often alienating, poorly paced and devolving into near-incoherence in the final moments.
Based on Boris Vian’s novel L’Écume des jours (translated variously as Froth on the Daydream and Foam of the Daze), the story is of an idle young Parisian bachelor, Colin (Romain Duris), who, we are told, is rich enough that he need never work. He spends his time eating the cooking of his valet, Nicolas (Omar Sy), devouring the works of writer “Jean-Sol Partre” with his friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and inventing things like the “pianocktail”, which creates drinks based on whatever song is played upon it (the film’s title comes from a Duke Ellington song).
Nicolas and Chick decide to find a lover for Colin, and Nicolas–who appears to have no shortage of talents and connections–arranges for Colin to go to a party and be introduced to Chloe (Audrey Tautou)¹. After an initially rocky courtship, exacerbated by Colin’s shyness, he and Chloe hit it off, and eventually marry. On their honeymoon, however, Chloe inhales a water-lily seed which takes root and grows a full flower in her lung. To inhibit the growth of this lily, she must be surrounded by fresh flowers at all times.
The cost of this deplete’s Colin’s savings, and for the first time in his life, he must go to work. Meanwhile, Chick’s own romance, with Nicolas’ niece Alise (Aïssa Maïga), is suffering because of his reluctance to marry and his all-consuming obsession with Partre. What once was a whimsical, optimistic love story becomes a tragedy of cross-purposes and broken dreams.
“Whimsical” is, or might as well be, the word for Mood Indigo. It’s full of strange touches, some small (like the doorbell which turns into a cockroach-like creature which must be smashed every time), some more detailed (the “bigelow”², a jazz dance where the dancers’ legs become extremely elongated…it’s hard to describe). The effect is more than a little wearying at times, not least because of the editing, which tends to make even individual sequences hard to follow. All the gimmicks and frills tend to put the viewer at a greater remove from the action, and when we’re dealing with a story about a woman dying of a water-lily in the lung, we need all the connection with the characters we can get.
The acting is a mixed bag in that regard. On the plus side, Audrey Tautou still has the bright, wholesome charm she brought to the titular role in Amélie, and she invests Chloe with a cheerful, kindly nature that stays just on the right side of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. You really care about her, and as her condition deteriorates, it’s decidedly poignant. And Omar Sy is just as full of life as he was in The Intouchables, even if he has far less to do here. But Nicolas is a fairly magical character, and Sy’s performance has some of that magic in it. As the story turns tragic, Nicolas ages rapidly and becomes sad and withdrawn; Sy plays this part of the story well, but the choppy editing obscures his efforts.
The rest of the cast tends to get lost amid the chaos. Romain Duris is a pretty bland hero; Colin isn’t all that interesting to begin with, but Duris doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table, and he tends to look mopey most of the time and blank the rest of it. He too is not well-served by the handling, but he does himself few favors. Gad Elmaleh barely has a character to play–Chick is fixated on Partre (God, what a stupid joke that is), to the point of destroying his relationship with Alise, which, given how devoid of depth Chick is, does not make him any more endearing. Maïga has some spirit, and a good moment or two of her own (there’s also a scene where she kisses Chloe full on the lips, which…was that in the book? It feels a bit like pandering to the men in the audience), but she too is swallowed up by the madness.
Gondry’s direction does not lack for imagination, but, at least in the American cut, he just doesn’t hold the story together at all. He gives us good images–Colin’s wacky, Pee-Wee Herman-esque apartment, the bigelow, the cloud-car that Colin and Chloe ride over Paris, etc.–but he doesn’t put them to the service of a good story or luxuriate in them enough to compensate. The script, which he co-wrote with Luc Bossi, is not much better, with a lot of silly jokes and random bits of whimsy, but nothing to really bring them together.
Obviously Stéphane Rosenbaum’s production design (and Florence Fontaine’s costumes) deserves credit, and Christophe Beaucarne’s cinematography has its moments, but the editing by Marie-Charlotte Moreau (and the re-cutting, apparently done (according to Indiewire) by Tariq Anwar), hampers their efforts. The editing, I should not, most profoundly seems to affect the last third of the film, as Colin’s apartment shrinks, the color fades to black-and-white, and the tragedy mounts. In the last 10 minutes, (spoilers) Colin gets a job delivering bad news a day in advance. Because of this, he learns that Chloe will die the following day. She does so (offscreen), her funeral is held–oh, and meanwhile, Alise shoots Partre because of Chick’s obsession–and the talking mouse that lives in Colin’s apartment brings a flip-book to a center where hundreds of people at typewriters are writing the story of the film (yeah, that’s a thing in this film), and Colin looks sad–oh, I think they have to bury Chloe in a landfill or something like that–and the flip-book is flipped, showing Colin and Chloe riding off in the cloud-car to a happy ending. (end spoilers)
Those final images would be quite powerful if they didn’t follow such a cluttered mishmash of events, none of which are even remotely properly developed. What should have been (and according to some accounts, is in the original) a truly poignant and moving ending ends up just being baffling. Perhaps if I read the book I’d be a little less in the dark, but the film nonetheless lets the viewer down.
It does have one decent strength: its soundtrack. I don’t really remember Étienne Charry’s original score (which I believe was nominated for a César), but there’s a fair amount of Duke Ellington (always good), and a really haunting, beautiful song by Mia Doi Todd, “Spring”:
It’s too bad the song was written years ago, since it would easily contend for my Original Song award. It arguably keeps the last part of the film from collapsing completely.
I can’t emphasize enough how much I want to see the complete version before forming a final opinion of this film. There’s a lot of potential in it, and while I doubt the original cut is a masterpiece, it might earn some of the emotional responses it clearly wants to evoke. Because at its core, it’s a melancholy love story, and I confess a weakness for those when done right. So maybe, somewhere out there, is the version of Mood Indigo for me.
¹I don’t recall the exact details of this sequence in the film. I think this is what happens. They meet up regardless.
²I thought it was called the “bigelow”. Other sources say “bigeloi”.