“Imaginative” to a fault, “whimsical” until you say uncle, Mood Indigo pushes director Michel Gondry’s style of surreal playfulness to its breaking point. The filmmaker behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep has never been shy about investing his work with a handmade preciousness that, when done right, imbues his romantic fables with an aching beauty, depicting love as a sensation that’s as potent and ephemeral as a dream. But Gondry’s latest, despite its share of arresting images and moments, demonstrates the downside to his approach: If there’s nothing girding the fantasia, the whole enterprise threatens to collapse under the weight of its cutesiness.
Based on Boris Vian’s novel 1940s novel Froth on the Daydream, Mood Indigo is Gondry’s most melancholy love story yet. Colin (Romain Duris) lives in a very Gondrian world: People greet each other by joining their hands and rotating them in a twirling motion similar to a mixer; Colin has an uber-adorable mouse (actually a human, played by Sacha Bourdo, dressed in a mouse costume) living in the walls of his apartment. The man goes to a party and meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou), who seems equally awash in childlike wonder. A love affair blooms, but the storybook romance seems destined not to have a happy ending: A mysterious illness in the form of a papier-mâché flower nesting in her heart threatens her life.
Gondry’s films can feel like aggressive enchantments catering to the perpetual adolescent in all of us, but at his best he spikes his frothy daydreams with real pain or ideas so goofy you can’t stop giggling. (For example, his 2008 comedy Be Kind Rewind starred Jack Black and Mos Def as buddies who have to re-create classic movies after all the tapes in Def’s video store are erased. Never mind the wonderfully dopey premise for a minute: Consider that Be Kind Rewind takes place in some bizarro present where stores that rent VHS tapes still exist.)
Mood Indigo is not without sharp stingers nestled inside its cotton-candy construction. (Occasionally breaking away from his main story, Gondry provides interludes that depict a room filled with anonymous workers who take turns typing a couple sentences into typewriters that roll by on a conveyor belt. These interludes are amusing, but they also articulate the challenge of artistic creation while simultaneously indicting the too-many-cooks problem inflicting most Hollywood films.) But for much of its running time, this romantic drama is so sticky-sweet and hyperactively visually quirky that it becomes nearly nauseating. Rather than being swept away by the joy of new love, we’re stuck watching one of those couples we know from real life who are so enraptured by themselves that they make everyone around them uncomfortable.
What would help is if Mood Indigo had stronger characters. Duris and Tautou have just the right look for a Gondry confection—especially Tautou with her impossibly cutie-pie eyes, used to fine effect in Amélie—but they’re not playing real people. Colin and Chloé are romantic archetypes, probably intentionally. They’re meant to be a little empty, allowing us to fill these blank vessels with our own memories and desires, seeing ourselves in their timeless tragic tale. But because Gondry’s fancifulness encases them in a hard shell—these characters don’t have attributes, just peculiarities—they don’t feel like stand-ins for us. Rather, they feel more like aliens from a sexless, infantilized world. (It’s worth noting that when Mood Indigo opened in Europe last year, its running time was over two hours. Even at 94 minutes, the U.S. release still feels prolonged.)
And yet, Mood Indigo’s second half can be enormously moving as Chloé’s health worsens. Gondry is adept at crafting moods, and once the increasingly melancholy tone takes hold, it can be overwhelming, and the realization that love can’t overcome death deeply affecting. As always, he favors practical effects. (The flying cars and the characters’ absurdly elongated legs when they dance have a tactile realness to them that’s charming.) For Gondry, the fragility of imagination is as important as its transportive properties. In Eternal Sunshine and The Science of Sleep, the whimsy bravely counteracted the dark, ugly realties the characters were trying to escape. But with Mood Indigo, Gondry has done perhaps too good a job of constructing his romantic Never Land—we’re so anaesthetized that the movie’s eventual heartbreak doesn’t cut as deeply as it should.
Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Michel Gondry, Luc Bossi (screenplay); Boris Vian (novel)
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aïssa Maïga, Charlotte Le Bon
Release Date: July 18, 2014
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.