It’s been 10 years since Michel Gondry made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the millennium’s most bittersweetly romantic film. The reverse love story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) is still the best thing the French filmmaker’s done, combining the ebullient inventiveness of his music videos, which turned the White Stripes into Legos and Björk into a truck driver, with inescapable emotional maturity, and injecting unlikely magic into a prosaic Long Island suburb.
Since then, Gondry’s made a good-natured concert doc with Dave Chappelle (2005’s Block Party), an awkward superhero flick (2011’s The Green Hornet), and a set of increasingly quirky movies that suggest he’s burrowing further and further into his singular imagination. His latest work, Mood Indigo, which opens in New York and L.A. this Friday (and more cities in the weeks after), is a surreal romance so cluttered with whimsical touches you have to stare at it for a while in order for the narrative to actually emerge, like a Magic Eye image. It’s a sad tale underneath the trimmings, but the way it’s told is half bewitching and half maddening, so enraptured with its cleverness and artistry that it’s sometimes unintelligible.
Mood Indigo’s adapted from Boris Vian’s experimental jazz-age novel about a young man named Colin (Romain Duris) who meets and marries Chloé (Audrey Tautou), only for her to become ill, leaving him struggling to pay for her treatment. Colin led a life of leisure until Chloé’s illness eats away at his wealth, his biggest concern being his “pianocktail,” a piano that makes drinks based on what you play (you can get a “nostalgic taste from minor chords,” Colin notes).
His best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) also falls in love with Alise (Aïssa Maïga), though their romance is hampered by his obsession with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton). Then there’s Nicolas (Omar Sy), Colin’s (somewhat regressively) magical personal chef-lawyer-mentor. He puts on Duke Ellington to instruct his employer in a dance called the biglemoe, in which participants’ limbs grow as long and boneless as Gumby’s.
It’s a blissful existence that Colin has, at least to start, and Gondry introduces it with a bewildering explosion that’s like a Gallic version of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Plates of food wriggle on the table, sunbeams can be plucked like guitar strings, and Colin’s pet mouse, played by a man in a mouse suit, scurries through a miniature version of his owner’s apartment. The eel they’re planning to eat for dinner is loose in the sink pipes, and Nicolas catches it, to the congratulations of his favorite TV chef, who also seems to be simply living in the television. It’s a bombardment of images, and while any one alone would seem ingenious, when taken all at once, they’re stupefying. It doesn’t feel like Gondry’s establishing a particular dreamlike mood; it feels like he’s unable to throw an idea out, even when that idea’s not all that well-articulated.
That sense of excited garbledness never entirely goes away, but Mood Indigo settles down when Colin meets Chloé at a party, and their first date together is a marvel of shabby enchantment, as they get into a coin-operated cloud ride that lifts them high above the city and then floats them through the streets. The film’s at its best when its off-kilter qualities settle at a baseline, which only really happens when Chloé grows ill. A pain in her chest turns out to be a “water lily” in her right lung, a dream logic stand-in for consumption that requires her to be treated with fresh flowers on her chest. Gondry himself plays the doctor who treats her, X-raying her with a giant device that turns her skin translucent and reveals the deadly blossom underneath her quivering ribcage in a haunting scene. Tautou and Duris, who are familiar stateside for their roles in Amélie and L’Auberge Espagnole respectively, never quite ground the impossible story, but they do find the tenderness and tragedy within it.
Mood Indigo may begin with an overdose of whimsy, but it’s wrenching when the magic slowly seeps out of the story as Chloé’s illness continues. The colors aren’t as bright, the apartment grows darker, and even Nicolas starts looking a little worn. Gondry serves up some terrifically memorable visuals, like Colin and Chloé suddenly drifting through a world that’s underwater after their first kiss as a married couple. But the absence of wonder turns out to be just as impactful. Gondry has an abundance of wild imagination, but the heartbreaking turn Mood Indigo takes in its second half is a sign of how much better his films can be with a little modulation.