BE­GUILED BY AB­SUR­DITY

Mood In­digo

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

(M) ★★★★ Limited re­lease

HAV­ING in­vented the cin­ema, the French lost no time in ex­ploit­ing its po­ten­tial for fan­tasy. Af­ter all, fan­tasy and il­lu­sion were the essence of the new medium — at least un­til Hol­ly­wood came along with its re­al­life sto­ries of drama and ro­mance. Ge­orges Melies pro­duced the world’s first science fic­tion fan­tasy, Voy­age to the Moon, in 1902 — a land­mark in French cin­ema. Fan­tasy was the pre­vail­ing theme in the work of Jean Cocteau, who in the 1940s gave us the stun­ningly po­etic Or­phee and his bril­liant fairy­tale La Belle et la Bete (re­made by Hol­ly­wood as an an­i­mated mu­si­cal). My choice for to­day’s most ad­mired prac­ti­tioner in the fan­tasy genre is French di­rec­tor Michel Gondry, whose lat­est film, Mood In­digo, may come to rank as a mas­ter­piece of the sur­real — an in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of mag­i­cal con­trivance and bizarre in­ven­tion that some­how re­mains rooted in the joys and sor­rows of the real world.

Gondry has ex­plored this ter­ri­tory be­fore. He is best known for Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind, a sur­prise hit in 2004 (at least in art-house cir­cles), with an Os­car-win­ning screen­play by Char­lie Kauf­man. The film was a med­i­ta­tion on the power of mem­ory and the pos­si­bil­ity of re­shap­ing our ex­pe­ri­ence of re­al­ity — a run­ning theme in Kauf­man’s work. Who can for­get John Cu­sack’s pup­peteer, who finds a por­tal into the ac­tor’s brain in Be­ing John Malkovich, or the writer who plots his own life’s dilem­mas in Adap­ta­tion, a story about an ob­ses­sive orchid fancier? In his 2003 film Hu­man Na­ture, also writ­ten by Kauf­man, Gondry ex­plored the pos­si­bil­ity of re­mak­ing peo­ple through so­cial conditioning — the idea be­hind An­thony Burgess and Stan­ley Kubrick’s awe­some parable A Clock­work Or­ange. Mood In­digo, with a very dif­fer­ent story to tell, is in the same weird and won­der­ful league.

The source is a 1947 novel by Boris Vian, a French poet, poly­math, mu­si­cian, ac­tor and writer, now a cult fig­ure in French lit­er­ary cir­cles. Vian and Gondry were surely made for each other. The ti­tle of Vian’s book, L’Ec­ume des jours, is the French ti­tle of the film, and trans­lates roughly as Froth on the Day­dream — not the best ti­tle for a movie aimed at so­phis­ti­cated English-speak­ing au­di­ences.

Vian, who died in 1959, once said (half­se­ri­ously, one sup­poses): ‘‘ There are only two things: love, all sorts of love, with pretty girls, and the mu­sic of New Or­leans and Duke Elling­ton. Ev­ery­thing else ought to go.’’ On that point, nat­u­rally, I have to dis­agree, but it’s fair to say Mood In­digo de­liv­ers gen­er­ously on Vian’s pri­or­i­ties. It’s both a love story — a beau­ti­ful one, with pretty girls — and a ve­hi­cle for a sur­prise ap­pear­ance by Elling­ton (al­beit in the guise of an ac­tor). It must also be the only film in which Elling­ton and the French ex­is­ten­tial­ist writer Jean-Paul Sartre can be seen to­gether. Sartre looks more like a bedrag­gled ven­tril­o­quist’s dummy, but he be­longs in this strange com­pany, hav­ing con­trib­uted much to the cin­ema of fan­tasy. (His screen­play Les Jeux sont faits, a ro­man­tic es­capade about the va­garies of free will, was filmed by Jean De­lan­noy in 1947, and is an­other clas­sic.)

At the cen­tre of Mood In­digo is Colin (Ro­main Duris), who lives a life of idle self­ind­ul­gence. Be­hind his en­ergy and ex­u­ber­ance we sense a lonely man. He has a de­voted ser­vant, Ni­co­las (Omar Sy), who cooks him ex­otic and elab­o­rate meals in a kitchen where strange things keep hap­pen­ing: an eel slith­ers from a tap, lead­ing ev­ery­one on a merry chase; pre­pared dishes take on a life of their own, quiv­er­ing and vi­brat­ing on plates and trays, as if danc­ing to some sound­less tune. Food seems to be Colin’s one plea­sure, though it seems he’s also an in­ven­tor of sorts (as, for the record, was Vian’s grand­fa­ther). Colin’s prize pos­ses­sion is some­thing he calls his pianock­tail, a pi­ano that dis­penses cock­tails ac­cord­ing to the notes pressed on the key­board. Any­one who feels Gondry’s taste for fan­tasy has ex­ceeded rea­son­able bounds al­ready may choose to read no fur­ther.

As if to em­pha­sise the film’s lit­er­ary ori­gins and his debt to Vian, Gondry opens with a shot of a vast room­ful of typ­ists seated in rows be­fore mov­ing con­veyer belts bear­ing hun­dreds of man­ual type­writ­ers. Each typ­ist has time to add a few words to an un­spec­i­fied man­u­script be­fore the ma­chine moves on. It would be point­less to ask what this means. We may as well ask what is meant by the old­fash­ioned door­bell that col­lapses into a mul­ti­tude of scur­ry­ing par­ti­cles when­ever Ni­co­las throws some­thing at it. But Gondry’s ef­fects are strangely com­pelling. I don’t mind be­ing baf­fled by un­ex­plained phe­nom­ena if they feel part of a larger hu­man can­vas. And that seems to be Gondry’s se­cret.

A week ago I saw Ge­of­frey Rush in The Best Of­fer, about an­other lonely man trapped in a web of mys­tery. But while Giuseppe Tor­na­tore’s film lacked warmth and soul and con­vic­tion (at least for me), Gondry’s is alive with emo­tional ex­cite­ment, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of dis­cov­ery and in­ven­tion.

Colin has a friend, Chick (Gad El­maleh), per­haps his only friend, a young man with a more se­ri­ous turn of mind. Chick may be Colin’s other self: with their lean, stub­bled faces, the two look re­mark­ably alike. One day Chick in­vites Colin to a party, a noisy af­fair where Colin meets the delightful Chloe (Au­drey Tautou). The first half of Mood In­digo is the story of their love and short-lived mar­riage. I can’t re­mem­ber a film in which the sheer rap­ture of new-found love is caught more vividly in purely vis­ual terms.

All Gondry’s trick ef­fects serve a pur­pose af­ter all: they may look silly and ir­rel­e­vant at times, but their cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect is ex­hil­a­rat- ing, and they are of the very essence of cin­ema.

We don’t just ob­serve th­ese lovers: we feel their buoy­ancy, their spir­i­tual el­e­va­tion, their ec­stasy. When Colin’s legs be­come mys­te­ri­ously in­ter­twined while walk­ing, there is magic in his fum­bling im­mo­bil­ity. When he dances with Chloe, their move­ments are phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble: swoop­ing dives, steep back­ward bends on elon­gated legs, as if their bod­ies were adapt­ing to a new en­vi­ron­ment. Ice-skat­ing of­fers them a new world of ef­fort­less ex­pe­ri­ence. Rain­bow-coloured skies can be seen through car win­dows. At the height of their jour­ney of pas­sion­ate self-dis­cov­ery, a huge con­struc­tion crane bears Colin and Chloe aloft to soar over fields and build­ings in a plas­tic bub­ble mounted on a tiny cloud.

It’s not long — and I’m giv­ing noth­ing away — be­fore Chloe is threat­ened by a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness. But in this sort of film, even the most painful mis­for­tune has a kind of al­lure, a be­guil­ing sweet­ness. It seems a waterlily is grow­ing in one of Chloe’s lungs and can­not be re­moved. Poor Colin is con­sumed by guilt and fear. He blames him­self for Chloe’s con­di­tion. Elling­ton is no help, nor is Sartre (or Jean-Sol Partre, as he’s archly re­ferred to). Seek­ing guid­ance for his friend, Chick and his lover, Alise (Aissa Maiga), at­tend a lec­ture on Sartre to find the hall packed with ec­static fans (a good joke in it­self). But all to no avail. As if to atone for his idle­ness and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity, Colin ap­plies for a job and finds him­self seated on a col­laps­ing chair dur­ing his in­ter­view. Even­tu­ally he is given work that re­quires him to lie with rows of other men on a kind of dung heap, im­part­ing body heat for the raw ma­te­rial to be used in a newly in­vented weapon.

The amaz­ing thing about Mood In­digo is that Gondry is able to sus­tain its ab­sur­dist mood with­out leav­ing us im­pa­tient, ex­as­per­ated or con­fused. Early in the film I se­ri­ously won­dered if I could see it through, but the vi­tal­ity of the cast, the skill of the writ­ing (Gondry wrote the screen­play with Luc Bossi) and the unflagging power of Gondry’s vis­ual in­ven­tion over­ride all ra­tio­nal ob­jec­tions. I re­mem­ber Duris in that ex­cel­lent thriller The Beat that My Heart Skipped, wear­ing the same air of gen­tle un­ease. El­maleh was seen briefly in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Yes, we’re in the real world in Mood In­digo, but it’s one we hardly recog­nise — a world with its own fic­tional cur­rency, a world where phys­i­cal laws are sus­pended, where love con­quers all. I doubt if any­one but the French could have made Mood In­digo. I doubt if any­one but Gondry could have di­rected it. It seems to me a rare and au­then­tic work of art, and one of the en­dur­ing plea­sures of the year.

Mood In­digo

Au­drey Tautou and Ro­main Duris on a ro­man­tic cloud in

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