Film Review – Mood Indigo
Michel Gondry is one of the most unique filmmakers working today. His ability to create imagery out of spare parts is unmatched – there are very few who exhibit such a sense of whimsy in a world of paper mache and cardboard cutouts. Sadly, Gondry’s biggest strength has increasingly become his biggest weakness. He is so involved with visual tricks that he doesn’t spend enough time on elements that are just as important: character and story. This is the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of the best films of the new century. His work since then – while just as stimulating to the eyes – has not struck the same emotional chord.
Gondry is a fantastic visual stylist, but his writing comes up at a distant second. In his latest film, Mood Indigo (2013), we see him at his most unrestrained. There is nothing holding him down here, he splashes the screen with a constant barrage of special effects, colorful sequences, and fanciful craziness. But when we strip everything down to what story he is trying to say, we find a thinly painted romantic tragedy. Sharing a screenplay credit with Luc Bossi, Gondry adapts Boris Vian’s novel of love between two carefree spirits with his usual flamboyant technique. Gondry has proven he can tackle romanticism in an effective way, but here he utilizes his style to cover the lack of substance.
Let’s examine our main character. Colin (Romain Duris) is a wealthy bachelor and inventor. He spends his time creating little gadgets – his most recent being a piano that mixes cocktails based on what song is played. Colin has a small group of friends (Gad Elmaleh, Aissa Maiga, Charlotte Le Bon), the closest being – of all people – his personal chef Nicolas (Omar Sy). Our bachelor longs for lasting love, the kind he sees his friends getting into. Lucky for him, he meets Chloe (Audrey Tautou). Colin and Chloe hit it off almost immediately. They’re quirky, playful, shy, and kind of awkward, but that’s exactly what draws them together. Their romance blossoms very quickly, with montages showing us how they’re relationship develops into wedding bells.
If there is one thing Gondry is a master at, it is expressing character’s feelings cinematically. He can take an emotion and expand it in a kaleidoscope of changing colors and shapes. When Colin and Chloe first date and start falling in love is when the film is at its best, because the imagery matches the mood perfectly. If they are feeling butterflies in their stomachs and the sensation of floating in the air, Gondry will literally show butterflies in their stomachs and place them sitting in a cloud. In fact, in one extended scene, he has the two explore Paris flying around in an actual cloud vehicle. The first half is so happy and lively that everyone has a permanent smile glued to their face.
It’s when we enter the second half when the cracks start to show. As the tone get noticeably darker, we see the lack of character development and the dependence on exaggerated imagery to keep things interesting. Colin and Chloe are one-dimensional characters, we never learn much about them as people: their hopes, fears, anxieties, morals, outlooks on life, nothing. So when an illness knocks on their door, it doesn’t have a convincing emotional impact. We’re not invested in their relationship because we don’t know anything about them, other than they’re madly in love with each other. Ironically, in a movie that is so vibrant, the characters remain blank slates.
Gondry never, ever, stops with the special effects. He doesn’t have a sense of subtlety, he throws in so much that it becomes exhausting. When a character acts like a klutz and trips over their own feet, he has them literally twisting their legs around like a pretzel. When depression sinks in and characters become gloomy, the environments change to fit the tone. The trouble is that there is no underlying base level for us to maintain our balance. There isn’t a reason for all these things to happen, and when they do, it feels arbitrary. Do we really need to see a doorbell crawl along a wall like a spider? It’s like Gondry is showing off with his lack of restraint.
I enjoy Gondry’s style, and look forward to each new work he puts out. But with Mood Indigo, he’s come to a crossroads. The film highlights the things he does well, but displays an emptiness I’ve found more troubling the further his career has gone on. His writing has become a point of concern, regardless of how pretty the final product looks. What starts out with energy and an upbeat pace ends in a slow and sad drag. Worst of all, I felt completely ambivalent about the whole thing when it was all over.
P.S.: On a side note, there is an entire side plot involving a character’s obsession with a French philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton). This storyline was so removed from everything else that it felt like it belonged in a completely different movie.