In Mood Indigo, writer-director Michel Gondry does something different – and, to be honest, a bit cruel – with his usual brand of whimsy. For the first time, it’s employed as a blunt instrument. Sure, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had its fair share of melancholy and cynicism, but Mood Indigo nearly tears your heart out.
The movie centers on an independently wealthy Parisian bachelor named Colin (Romain Duris). Colin lives a carefree life filled with oddball inventions (a pianocktail that makes drinks as you play it) and elaborate meals prepared by his amiable lawyer/chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy). At a party one day, Colin is introduced to Chloe (Audrey Tatou). He bumbles things, but she says, “Let’s bumble together.” And so they embark on an affair that’s seemingly leading to happily ever after – at least until, days after their wedding, she falls ill.
In its opening section, Mood Indigo seems to be bursting with more creativity than it knows what to do with (the downfall of Gondry’s The Science of Sleep). Nicolas keeps his calendar on a hand-crafted Rubik’s Cube. A tiny man in a mouse costume scurries about Colin’s house. At that party, everyone does a dance called the biglemoi and their legs elongate as if they were in a funhouse mirror. It’s ingeniously exhausting.
The movie is an Etsy of emotion.
Intellectually, Mood Indigo’s cup runneth over as well. There are jabs at the dreary existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (Colin’s best friend is obsessed with a gloomy author named Jean-Sol Partre), as well as a meta narrative layer in which we see a room of typists pounding away at the story as it happens. (I loved the touch, near the end, where Colin invades this space and forcibly tries to write a happy ending.) It’s all provocative, yet also a bit relentless. The ideas multiply along with the stop-motion food prepared by Nicolas.
If there’s a fixed point in the film – something that gives us our bearings and allows us to catch our breath – it’s the chemistry between the two leads. It helps that Duris and Tatou both wear the whimsy lightly; it never suffocates them, or becomes insufferable. One of their first dates involves a ride on a cloud car – a cumulus-shaped cart that’s suspended over Paris by crane – and they both seem genuinely delighted by the experience. Their wedding manages to be moving as well, never mind that it takes place in a cathedral that’s filled with water.
Throughout Mood Indigo, Gondry uses handcrafted effects to heighten life’s biggest moments; the movie is an Etsy of emotion. Yet after Chloe’s illness, when things turn grim, this creative energy becomes darkly evocative. When Colin receives a call with bad news, the walls literally move to close in on him. Racing to the hospital on foot, the shadow he casts on a building leaps off the wall and begins chasing him, literalizing his fear. Cobwebs begin to overtake Colin and Chloe’s previously airy home, to the point that the little man in the mouse costume moves out.
There’s an honesty here that’s admirable. When we think of whimsical figures, we tend to think of the clown at the children’s hospital, not the doctor delivering a terminal diagnosis. Yet by merging the two, Mood Indigo understands that sickness can blacken everything when it comes. This is a movie that begins in whimsy and ends in a deadening snuff. For all its playful imagination, the film is very real – and rough.