French filmmaker Michel Gondry has built a reputation around his inventively handmade, DIY visual aesthetic. Gondry's films burst with fanciful imagery, imperfectly crafted out of tinfoil and cardboard, and it's tempting to dismiss his films as frivolous exercises in quirkiness. But that would be to ignore the real sense of sorrow lurking at the center of the director's best films. His ramshackle style was used to great effect in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," perfectly complementing Charlie Kaufman's melancholy script.
Based on the 1947 surrealist novel "Froth on the Daydream" by Boris Vian, "Mood Indigo" takes the melancholy tone of "Eternal Sunshine" several steps further in telling a tragic fable of doomed love.
The film's opening establishes the charmed life of its hero, an independently wealthy Parisian bachelor named Colin (Romain Duris). Colin spends his free time inventing useless contraptions like his "pianocktail," a piano which automatically mixes cocktails, choosing various ingredients based on the notes that are played. His apartment comes equipped with a doorbell that springs to life and scurries down the wall every time someone rings, and a tiny man dressed as a mouse on hand to assist Colin's friend and personal chef, Nicolas, with the cooking. At the conclusion of each extravagant meal, Nicolas sweeps the leftovers, plates and all, into the garbage. These early moments create a manic energy as Gondry goes a bit overboard with the whimsy, but things slowly settle down as the story progresses.
After learning that all of his friends are all in the midst of pursuing romantic relationships, Colin demands that he fall in love as well. Attending a friend's birthday party -- rather, a birthday party for a friend's dog -- Colin immediately meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou, "Amélie"). After a few awkward attempts at flirting, he asks her to dance, admitting that he's a bit bumbling before she takes his hand and assures him that "we'll bumble together."
What follows is a whirlwind courtship, beginning with a first date in which the pair ride a cloud car suspended from a crane that carries them through the skies of Paris, their legs hanging out the bottom as they dangle high above the city. It's not long before Colin asks for Chloé's hand in marriage. It's around this point that Gondry reveals he's got a little more on his mind than pure whimsy. While on their honeymoon, Chloé falls ill. It seems that a water lily has taken root in her right lung, and as it grows, she will only grow sicker. The water lily is a pretty clear metaphor for cancer, but by avoiding a straightforward depiction of the illness, Gondry can skip the specifics and focus on making his audience feel the raw emotions on display.
Colin dedicates his life to helping his wife get better, taking menial jobs and spending his time and all of his money on treatments, filling every square inch of her room with flowers when doctors tell him that that's the best way to combat the invasive seedling that's growing inside of her.
Duris and Tautou, aside from making a particularly striking couple, play their roles with complete sincerity. Their performances ground the film -- especially in the early going -- keeping things from becoming too cloying. And when it comes to it, they prove more than capable of making us feel their pain.
Contrary to what one might imagine, the fantastical elements don't drain away from the picture as circumstances become dire. Instead, Gondry uses them to bring his characters internal emotions to life; the walls literally close in on Colin during a phone call informing him that his wife has relapsed; their home withers and decays around them as Chloé's health deteriorates. Periodically the film cuts to a room of typists deciding the course of the story, tapping away on an endless stream of typewriters passing by on conveyor belts. In a darkly effective moment late in the film, Colin breaches the walls of the room, hoping to forcibly write a happy ending for himself. Who hasn't at one point or another wished to rewrite the script our lives seem to follow?
Even the film's color palette turns darker as sadness seeps its way in, and eventually the color drains away completely, so the final portion of the film is seen entirely in black and white.
All the artifice proves poetic, and somehow more hauntingly effective than straight reality at making us feel the emotional truth at the heart of its tragic tale.