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Film Review: ‘Mood Indigo’

Michel Gondry's latest is an often inventive but finally exhausting adaptation of Boris Vian's cult novel

After an opera adaptation and earlier cinematic efforts by Go Riju and Charles Belmont, Boris Vian’s supposedly unfilmable cult novel “Froth on a Daydream” has been adapted to the bigscreen as Michel Gondry’s often inventive but finally exhausting “Mood Indigo.” Gondry’s trademark do-it-yourself production design (“Be Kind Rewind,” “The Science of Sleep”) is given a big-budget showcase here, but the resulting yarn, about a rich man rendered penniless by his ailing g.f.’s need for flowers to stay alive, is emotionally stunted and lacks the requisite sense of tragedy. With Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou playing two iconic characters, initial local B.O. should be solid; offshore, “Mood” will be cooler.

Finally back on Gallic home turf after “The Green Hornet” and “The We and the I,” Gondry would seem the perfect filmmaker to adapt Vian’s work and bring to life such flights of fancy as the pianocktail, a cocktail machine that translates any musical piece into a colorful concoction. But herein lies exactly the problem: As directed by Gondry from a screenplay he wrote with producer Luc Bossi, the film frequently privileges art direction over emotion, and a constant sense of wonder based on visuals alone proves impossible to sustain over the lengthy 130-minute runtime.

The central story focuses on the well-off Colin (Duris), who lives in a fabulous rooftop apartment overlooking Paris with his chef and lawyer, Nicolas (Omar Sy, “The Intouchables”). At a party, Colin meets the pixieish vision that is Chloe (Tautou), a “girl like a Duke Ellington tune” with whom he falls head-over-heels in love. Their first get-togethers — a dance at the party, a visit to an ice rink and a trip across Paris in a cloud-shaped capsule — are beautifully and fancifully conceived, but they already signal that Gondry is more interested in the technical challenge of crafting imaginative setpieces (think elongated limbs, shoes with a mind of their own, weird masks, etc.) than in investing them with emotional meaning.

It’s left entirely to Duris’ and Tautou’s glances to suggest their characters’ quickly growing attachment, which will finally lead them to the altar, where the officiating priest (a miscast Vincent Rottiers) of course makes his entrance via space shuttle. The couple’s honeymoon, filmed in split-screen with sunshine on one side and rain on the other, further confirms that any emotional throughline — crucially important as a binding element in a story as surreal as this one — has taken a definite backseat to audiovisual pizzazz for pizzazz’s sake.

The couple’s idyll comes to an end when a water lily starts growing in one of Chloe’s lungs, as explained by a doctor (Gondry, weirdly and self-consciously inserting himself into the proceedings). She has to be continuously surrounded by fresh flowers to keep from wilting herself, though her condition keeps worsening and, as it does, the couple’s bedroom becomes smaller, moldier and altogether more unpleasant — yet another situation rendered with more evident glee than empathy with a dying girl and her helpless hubby, who has to find work to cover his outrageous floral spending spree.

Not only do the size and color of the room change, but the hues of Christophe Beaucarne’s lensing become paler as Chloe wastes away, until the look of the film is essentially monochrome by the time Colin has to deliver a devastating message. The artistic choice makes sense theoretically but feels mannered in the execution; the production design seems to be dictating the emotion, rather than vice versa.

Part of the problem is that Gondry tries to inject too many elements from the novel in an attempt to satisfy fans hoping to see their favorite scenes onscreen. This is especially problematic when it comes to the supporting characters, including not only Nicolas, but also his relative, Alise (Aissa Maiga, luminous as always), and her love interest, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), who’s obsessed with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton). Chick is also Colin’s best friend, though even this coincidence doesn’t help Gondry, who lets the secondary characters appear and disappear almost randomly, as if whole parts of their stories were left on the cutting-room floor. Rather than reinforcing or offering contrasts to the main thread, they simply distract.

Duris, in an underwritten part, is either all smiles or gloomy, while the unimaginatively cast Tautou (already Duris’ girl in 2002’s “L’auberge espagnole”) is efficient but nothing more. Sy, Maiga and the others play second fiddle not only to the leads but especially to the visual effects, which are indeed impressive, even if quite a few are reminiscent of Gondry’s previous films or musicvids. The mixture of stop-motion animation, digital special effects, mechanical effects and stuntwork is nearly seamless, though the film does take some time to establish the tone and atmosphere that allow these elements to harmoniously coexist.

Mood Indigo
(L’ecume des jours)

Reviewed at UGC Normandie, Paris, March 20, 2013. Running time: 130 MIN.

A Studiocanal (in France) release of a Brio Films, Studiocanal presentation of a Brio Films, Studiocanal, France 2 Cinema, Herodiade, Scope Pictures production, in association with Canal Plus, Cine Plus. (International sales: Studiocanal, Paris.) Produced by Luc Bossi.

Directed by Michel Gondry. Screenplay, Gondry, Luc Bossi, based on the novel “Froth on a Daydream” by Boris Vian. Camera (color/B&W, HD), Christophe Beaucarne; editor, Marie-Charlotte Moreau; music, Etienne Charry; production designer, Stephane Rozenbaum; costume designer, Florence Fontaine; sound (DTS), Guillaume Le Bras; animation supervisor, Valerie Pirson; special effects director, Julien Poncet; visual effects supervisor, Stephane Bidault; stunt coordinator, Remi Canaple; line producer, Xavier Castano.

Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Philippe Torreton, Vincent Rottiers, Laurent Lafitte, Natacha Regnier, Zinedine Soualem, Alain Chabat.
(French dialogue)

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