Divergent Portrayal

Director Michel Gondry adapts French polymath Boris Vian’s fatalistic story of impossible romance; the result makes a refreshing and surreal contrast to conventional cinema.

Mood Indigo  unfolds as an idealistic and poetic love story; yet through a series of bizarre and entirely illogical events this visual feast rapidly transforms into a breathtakingly poignant Greek tragedy. On the surface, it is an animated Surrealist painting whilst in substance it is almost entirely faithful to the 1947 novel L’écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream ) written by French author, philosopher, inventor and jazz musician Boris Vian.

L’écume des Jours is the tale of Colin (Romain Duris), a handsome and wealthy romantic who spends his time inventing bizarre contraptions such as the “pianocktail” – a piano that mixes cocktails according to the notes played – and dining on wonderful food with his closest friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), prepared by manservant Nicolas (Omar Sy). Colin’s apartment is a suspended railway carriage that he shares with a good-natured mouse who, according to Duris, “embodies the spirit of freedom,” and so his life seems ideal and carefree. However, Colin has a palpable vulnerability and states early on in that he does not believe it is normal to be alone.

Colin’s life is altered when he meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou) at a party; he woos her to the sounds of Duke Ellington as they spend an evening dancing the “Biglemoi” – an anatomy-defying dance that bends the legs to reflect the bass tones of Ellington’s jazz. According to Tautou, Chloé “evokes something poetic and filled with sunshine. She’s the embodiment of kindliness, virtue and delicacy. She is like Shakespeare’s Juliet because there is a lot of purity and romance in the story and, of course, there is impossibility.”

This “impossibility” is due to a cruel illness that strikes Chloé almost immediately after the couple’s meeting: a water lily begins growing in her lung (a striking metaphor for cancer) and will only die if surrounded by fresh flowers. As Chloé’s illness worsens, Colin is forced to take on a series of gruelling jobs to pay for the piles of white roses, lilies and carnations that begin to fill their apartment – meanwhile Nicolas, Chick and even Colin’s apartment also deteriorate, which leads to the final poignant climax.

The novel L’écume des Jours  is hugely important to French readers, and for this reason Mood Indigo  director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  and The Science of Sleep ) felt he “had a huge pressure on [his] shoulders” when it came to making this latest adaptation. International audiences may not understand the French attachment to the story, which Gondry explains with: “Boris Vian belongs to everyone. Everyone has his or her own version of the story … I remember what Agnès Varda said to me: ‘I hope you make us a good film because we all love that book …’”

With this in mind, the narrative of Mood Indigo  is almost entirely faithful to the novel, even including sections which might seem outmoded, and incorporating Vian’s ingenious puns and spoonerisms. However, the visual universe of the film is very much of the director’s own characteristic style: part set, part art installation. Working with producer Luc Bossi, who had written the first draft of the screenplay, and set designer Stéphane Rozenbaum, Gondry created for the film something of a magical, never-ending sweet shop of visual tricks and surprises – shot almost entirely without bluescreen.

The film opens with Colin’s kitchen, which in Mood Indigo  is not so much the “heart of the home” as the most concentrated focus of Gondry’s production design. Within this long tubular space, chaos reigns as chef Nicolas follows, through a screen, the outlandish recipes of a modern-day version of 19th century chef Jules Gouffé, who reaches out now and again to add seasoning or lend a hand. Nicolas’s dishes appear on Colin’s table as quivering stop-animations (fish that bite one another, six-tiered cakes filled with objects, and sausages that fly from their plates) and Colin and Chick remain unfed for the majority of the film, never able to catch their food before it jumps off the table, or the tabletop itself is tipped onto the floor by Nicholas – who prefers to sweep the smashed plates from the floor than wash up. Gondry explains: The book is really visual and I didn’t just want to match what’s on the page; I wanted to bring my own universe and I think it’s complementary to that of Boris Vian.” Accordingly, the idea for this Michelin-starred kitchen-cum-laboratory grew from Vian’s reference to a cookery book “of very flamboyant nineteenth-century cooking” by Jules Gouffé.“I bought this book and saw all of these great illustrations,” Gondry explains: “At the time photographs were not as sharp as they are now so they had to draw little lines around them so that you could print them and still recognise what was there. This gave me the idea to bring a sort of artificial aspect to the food – a mix of photos of real food, felt, paint and different materials. I used stop animation like in The Science of Sleep : we’d finish the day with the actors, leave everything on the spot and the animator would come in; using the same camera, and the same lighting and angle they would animate the food very carefully frame by frame. The next day we’d carry on shooting.”

“We did only one or two weeks of bluescreen – it just makes you depressed. Some movies are shot entirely on bluescreen and you can feel that the actors just aren’t in the same world…I really wanted to focus on [the actors’] performance, that’s why we didn’t use [much] digital post production; a lot of it, like when they try to eat the sausage and it keeps moving, was just little tricks – here we had fishing wire so they really were trying to catch it.”

While Gondry’s small-scale set pieces favour mechanical tricks rather than high-tech gadgets, his larger props brought with them a slightly taller order, as producer Luc Bossi explains: “Michel was determined to reconstruct part of Colin’s apartment on the roof of the offices of French daily, Libération, to ensure some real views of Paris to add to those we’d already come up with in the studio. Assembling a set on a roof would significantly add to the budget and some of the crew were sceptical, but Michel was determined. And the roofs of Paris on the screen really do bring something extra.” The film includes a myriad of illusions and visual triumphs – a joyride over Paris in a cloud-like glass bubble; a factory filled with hundreds of typewriters attached to conveyer belts, intended to illustrate workers finishing Vian’s story line by line; and finally the physical shrinking of Colin’s apartment to which each day the crew “added more dust to make it become smaller, more oppressive.”

Gondry notes that his “main concern was how to translate the romanticism and relationship of Chloé and Colin, and the sadness of the end of the story; in this very rich universe, I still wanted the focus to be on them,” and the design of the film does bolster rather than infringe upon the performances of his cast – they are often reacting as much as they are acting. With his cast, Gondry achieves a series of mesmerising characters in addition to the two leads.

Omar Sy is Nicolas, Colin’s employed Swiss Army knife and friend, who is strangely also, according to Gondry: “The most scientific, articulate man in the story.” Nicolas becomes a grounded protector of Chloé when Colin can no longer cope, and with this closeness becomes one of the first characters to decline as the story darkens: ageing 50 years from one day to the next.

Meanwhile, Chick is the turbulence to clash with Nicolas’s steady foundation – a fascinating character and the epitome of Vian’s black yet playful humour. Chick is a hard-core addict; his romantic life, financial situation, work and entire life is plagued by a single vice: Jean-Sol Partre (Vian’s witticism on Jean-Paul Sartre). Gad Elmaleh absolutely masters the look of a man gnawed away at by a compulsion, and therefore creates an agitated contrast to the film’s otherwise relaxed movement, dialogue and music. As Gondry comments: “Nowadays it’s hard to imagine how a philosopher, like Jean-Paul Sartre, was a star and masses of people would wait outside his lectures and fight to get in. The closest modern example I could think of was Steve Jobs presenting the new iPad. But I didn’t want to sell an iPad – I thought that I needed to include the famous thinker.”

It may seem ridiculous to contemporary audiences to present Chick’s interest as akin to drug addiction, yet with this Gondry achieves a genuine portrayal of intellectual obsession – just as the physical worsening of the apartment mirrors growing depression; Nicolas’s sudden ageing reflects the effect of trauma; and Colin’s willingness to take on ridiculous jobs, losing them almost immediately due to his absent-mindedness, depicts the actions of a desperate lover. In Vian and Gondry’s combined fantastical, seemingly nonsense world, there is in fact a huge amount of truth. Of course the core of this world is the relationship between Colin and Chloé, which is first recognised with the increasingly eminent exchange: “I feel like my whole life depends on this moment. If I miss it …” – Colin. “I think the exact opposite. If we miss this moment, we try at the next one and if we fail, we try at the next moment again. We have our whole life to make it work.” – Chloé.

These short lines identify Colin’s insecurity compared with Chloé’s optimism and confidence; as Gondry recognises, he is the main character but “she is the one you fall in love with.” In casting the role, the director states “The first actress I could think of was Audrey; I had always thought that she had the capacity to be fragile, but there’s also something strong in her – she always carries a movie on her shoulders … She has an energy that was essential to the character – Chloé has to find the strength to reassure everyone else so that everyone else can reassure her in turn. There’s a clarity in her face that reminds me of actresses of the golden age like Lauren Bacall. She also has a sensitivity that evokes stars of the silent screen.” Romain Duris followed Tautou in the casting, “to harmonise with her,” and impressed the director in his very first scene during which “he has to shoot at water lilies with a twisted rifle”, something that Gondry notices “is not easy to do. Sometimes, an actor’s talent isn’t measured by how they get across some amazing emotions, but by how good they are at making you believe in the simple things.”

What Tautou and Duris are truly effective in conveying is this sort of utopian, flawless romance between Chloé and Colin, an idea very rarely played out on contemporary cinema screens. Still, this is not strictly a contemporary story (set somewhere between 1947, 1970 and 2014). Gondry’s film communicates a recollection. He says, “I had memories of the first time I read the book more than 30 years ago: very vivid flashbacks in my mind that I wanted to integrate into the movie.” The effect of this is that the representation of love and relationships within Mood Indigo  is based on the opinion of a teenager – naïve and uncomplicated; and combined with Vian’s intellectual wit and Gondry’s vivid illustration of an all-encompassing psychological and physical decline, this becomes a poignant rather than foolish notion.

Gondry’s affection for L’écume des Jours and admiration for Boris Vian is evident in the film’s proximity to the novel, and its considered additions: Colin’s railway carriage apartment, for example, is based on an American diner as Vian adored American culture but could barely travel due to his heart condition, and the typewriter-filled factory, which asserts to viewers that Gondry’s story, L’écume des Jours, is not his own. The director explains that his sensitive approach was influenced by Boris Vian’s death during the screening of the first adaptation – “he died very young, at 39 – I felt I didn’t want him to die a second time, if he’s watching me from the heavens.”

Mood Indigo  is a handcrafted, whimsical and timeless film that fades from optimism to despair, and finally moves from vivid colour into the greyscale of genuine tragedy; it is a unique and fearless piece, as Romain Duris reflects: “It deals as much with what one loses as with what one gains.”

Mood Indigo  is released 1August in UK cinemas. www.studiocanal.com.

Chloe Hodge