Mood Indigo (L’écume des jours) (Michel Gondry – France/Belgium) 125 minutes
I wrote a few weeks ago about how my neighbourhood is becoming increasingly popular with filmmakers (mostly French, though it did also appear in Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale over a decade ago). Now it is featuring in what is likely to be the biggest French film of the year; last Spring, a number of fantastical customised cars appeared on the streets around where I live, with the announcement that filming was afoot for Michel Gondry’s adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours (translated, though little known, in English as Froth on the Daydream). The film has now made it to the screen. The result – a third adaptation of the novel – is a mixed bag, visually resplendent and inventive but ultimately rather empty. That said, it is definitely worth a look.
Vian’s novel is a French counterpart to On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, a mid-century novel that has been devoured by generations of teenagers. It is also, crucially, very different in nature and mood from Kerouac or Salinger’s novels. It tells of the wasting away of Chloé, the wife of the main character, Colin, after she ingests a water lily in her lungs while on their honeymoon. The novel is shot through with the existentialism of the day, even having as a peripheral character, a celebrated philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (the real Sartre would see the funny side and was an early champion of the novel, published when Vian was only 27). Jazz is also a key motif – Vian was a talented trumpeter, and close friend of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many of the other greats of the era – and L’écume des jours is the literary embodiment of the zazou, a type of French student beatnik that surfaced during the German Occupation and which now lives on only in the Monaco, a sickly-sweet grenadine shandy confection popular among French students.
Gondry, not surprisingly, emphasises the fantastical aspect of the novel and picks and chooses for the film’s visual and aural texture. The soundtrack is the very jazz that Vian would have listened to (and played) while the costumes and sets are very much of the 1940s, though it is clearly set in some type of parallel universe of present-day Paris. Every frame of the film is filled with some type of disjointed surreal gadget or scenario – a TV chef instructing Colin’s manservant Nicolas (Omar Sy) as he cooks, a doorbell that crawls all over the apartment as it rings, a pair of two-tone loafers that growl and have a life of their own. My own favourite trope was the assembly-line typing pool located in the belly of Oscar Niemeyer's French Communist Party HQ. You imagine early on that it will all soon wear thin, but the visuals are actually the most enduring thing about the film. They are constantly inventive and have a gauche charm; they are a box of analogue delights found in the attic, an old hokey train-set resurrected by CGI.
Romain Duris, a man who doesn’t look to be getting any older, is well cast as Colin, even if he has very little in the way of a real character to grapple with. Audrey Tatou does the bare minimum as Chloé – neither good nor bad, she is rather a presence in a film, reassuring for audiences and financiers alike (in much the same way as Tom Hanks is in Hollywood). Better are Aïssa Maïga and Gad Elmaleh as Alice and Chick, the couple whose own travails pad out the subplot. Gondry himself also turns in a surprisingly effective comic performance as Chloé’s doctor.
While the film’s visual inventiveness never wanes, the narrative does. At just over two hours, it is about half an hour too long; what starts off like a sprightly, technicolor Guy Maddin film ends up like an actual Guy Maddin film. The final half-hour is a real slog and whereas Gondry ably captures the style and mood of Vian’s novel (as referenced in the film’s English-language title), his repackaging of its ideas and themes leaves a lot more to be desired. In a way, you can trace the film’s problems, like many of Gondry’s recent films, to the lack of a Charlie Kaufman, who wrote his first two, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman doubles up, folds and contorts plot, time and space in his scripts in much the same way Gondry mangles visual information – in the two early films, they complemented each other well. Without Kaufman though, Gondry is really back to where he started out as – a talented director of music videos with a flair for the imaginative but lacking the structural discipline necessary for a full feature (though you might also say that Kaufman without Gondry or Spike Jonze is himself adrift – his Synecdoche, New York, plays out in an equally plodding way to this film). Mood Indigo is ultimately a thin undertaking that fails to really do justice to the source text. Still, the film is visually exciting enough to recommend, and it is likely to do well internationally, even if its posterior success is set to be as motion-picture wallpaper projected on the walls of hipster bars and clubs.