The films of Michel Gondry seem to germinate in a waking life, the detritus of a series of long naps from which the 50-year-old French director emerges, squinting at the daylight, with a fresh set of dreamy ideas.
Some of his films take a direct look at sleep and memory (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Others play kooky premises straight (Human Nature, Be Kind Rewind).
In Gondry’s latest head trip, Mood Indigo, you won’t blink when you see a four inch tall man dressed in a rat costume driving a tiny car. It’s that sort of film. Immediately afterwards, Gondry cuts to a man who puts on a tie by having it hammered into him with nails. The tie is alive (naturally) and flopping about like a fish drowning in oxygen.
Gondry’s body of work has been consistently varied, and that variety has allowed him to continually surprise. His CV even includes a popcorn superhero movie, The Green Hornet.
Gondry is a strange breed, but never one to seem pretentious or whose visions feel impenetrable. Never one to seem as if he makes his movies while rubbing his hands together and thinking “look at me I’m being weird” which, incidentally, are the same words Tim Burton says to himself every night when he takes off his bug-eyed glasses and slithers onto a four-poster bed after watching English-dubbed 70s Asian monster movies on a hand-crafted Savonarola chair. Or so he may wish us to believe.
Gondry is not like that. Not, that is, until now.
Adapted from a bestselling and presumably “unfilmable” 1947 novel by Boris Vian, the title of which translates to ‘Froth on the Daydream’, Mood Indigo is broadly about a tragic romance between two lovers in Paris.
Trouble strikes when one of them develops a medical condition. It’s unlikely that particular ailment — a lily that grows inside their lungs — is listed in any dictionary. Even in Gondry’s universe.
A doorbell in the protagonist’s apartment frequently comes alive, runs around and multiples in the manner of something from a department store stocked by the imagination of William S. Burroughs. Like the film it is rampant, unpredictable, difficult to peg down and, ultimately, very annoying.
Eels emerging from taps, bodies that impossibly stretch and contort and weird flying machines are par for the course, and they sure sound interesting. But a dearth of plot, story and character motivation sucks the gas out of the pinger and dilutes Gondry’s impressive constructions, making them drippy and unappealing, a sort of watery cinematic risotto with acid-infused rice.
The film has been released in Australia with a 95 minute running time, having had half an hour snipped from the original version. It’s easy to see why a distributor would get spooked. With nothing to bed the picture down, it quickly becomes a catcher’s mitt for bits and bobs flung together like a badly arranged bouquet. Colouful, yeah, but you wouldn’t want to give it to your date. Mood Indigo is the sort of film experimental undergraduates watch after taking their first trip.
If this sounds dismissive, or sounds like it fails to appreciate the whims of a piece of art that aspires to feats of wonder and imagination, it is a different way of repeating the same kind of criticisms regularly hurled at flashy big budget dreck: that they are goofed-up with gratuitous spectacle and are victims of style over substance.
Mood Indigo, a film that plays far better in the memory than in the moment, scores some points for building a world of care-free madness. It is batty, indecipherable and inaccessible, an attempt at visualizing something along the lines of absurdist surreal poetry, or at least that seems like a suitable way to put it.
But this is “don’t cry for me I’m already dead” quasi-art cinema with nothing to appreciate other than flourishes of the moment — and the film’s wobbly pace and impenetrable world largely kills those pleasures. What numbs arse cheeks most is not lack of character or lack of plot, but a lack of cause and effect, a feeling that the script is never really moving from one point to another.
Despite its basis in a certain kind of logic (that one action invariably causes a consequence), cause and effect has nothing to do with logic, per se, in the sense of realism or the prosaic.
In a way the logic of cause and effect is more important the least logical the context around it becomes. It can shape the most delirious of films with a sense of purpose, give order to chaos. When we recall Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus, Brazil (1985), we first remember the bat shit crazy Kafkaesque aesthetic — but the protagonist’s descent into madness is a precisely mapped journey.
If you jettison primary foods such as cause and effect, the skull under the skin of cinema, filmmakers tend to rely on atmospheric prowess. The danger — very much realised in Mood Indigo — is that moving pictures take on the properties of moving wallpapers.
Mood Indigo’s Australian theatrical release date: September 12, 2013.