Hold on. The opening credits in director/writer Michel Gondry’s latest, Mood Indigo (based on a 1947 novel by Boris Vian) are frenetic, exuberant and visually overwhelming. It’s sort of like the beginning of one of the greatest French New Wave movies, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, except cranked past 11. The scene—a series of bizarre sequences involving mad typists writing the script as it goes along, a television chef who can reach out of the glass teat at his whim and animated eels pouring out of faucets—is audacious, feverishly imaginative and completely representative of the movie as a whole. This commencement sets the visual tone of Mood Indigo. It is also exhausting, since it’s difficult to get a footing in the narrative beyond all the wondrous, playful jazzing about. But stay with it. Mood Indigo eventually does find traction and develops an emotional core that blooms as it goes along. This movie overflows with creative invention, but Gondry also understands that if the emotional center doesn’t hold, the whole effort is meaningless.
Gondry, who 10 years ago directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, based on Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, here revisits similar themes of love found and lost. But the two movies have very different narrative paths to love’s fragility. Colin (Romain Duris) is a rich, charming yet awkward bachelor, living with his servant and chef (Omar Sy) and paling around with his fellow girl-crazed best friend, Chick (Gad Emaleh), who is obsessed with a Sartre-like popular philosopher (named “Jean-Sol Partre”). Colin meets the lovely Chloé (Audrey Tautou), who is equally awkward and charming, and the two fall in love, court each other and then…
As their relationship deepens, so does the movie, though only up to a point. Gondry is unfortunately always more fascinated with the visual surface of the story than with the deeper emotional chords. His great cinematic gifts are his playfulness and his knack for conjuring magical, lo-fi special effects that are as compelling as anything seen in a bloated, big-budget extravaganza. Gondry is a mix of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès and the great fantasist Jean Cocteau, and in conveying poetry visually he is without equal in modern cinema. Unfortunately, Mood Indigo gets buried in the deeper layers. When tragedy strikes the relationship, it is symbolically touching yet feels cosmetic. Darkness unfurls, though we aren’t consumed by it as we should be. Gondry is still playing with toys, when he should be breaking our hearts.
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