BEGUILED BY ABSURDITY
(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.
Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris on a romantic cloud in