Mood Indigo review: Is director Michel Gondry’s latest film brilliant or just plain cheesy?

Mood Indigo opens Friday, Aug. 29 at FilmScene.

If you’re at all familiar with Mood Indigo‘s director, Michel Gondry, and its star, Audrey Tatou, you can probably venture a guess as to what the film is like. ‘Amélie (2001) meets The Science of Sleep (2006)’ is pretty much on the nose. Among some people, this likely confirms high hopes for a playful fairy-tale-cum-romantic-comedy; among others, it likely confirms a bit of anticipatory disdain.

Mood Indigo is the story of Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy bachelor who lives a carefree life with his cook Nicolas (Omar Sy) and his best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). When Chick drags Colin to a party, he meets and falls in love with Chloe (Audrey Tatou), who happens to share a name with his favorite Duke Ellington song. Soon, Chloe and Colin are married, but on their wedding night Chloe contracts a persistent and mysterious lung ailment.

Meanwhile, Chick has begun neglecting his girlfriend Alise (Aïssa Maïga) because of his literally pathological obsession with philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (a spoonerism of the name of 20th century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre). Much of the film is about the effect of these illnesses on Colin’s world, which begins losing the color and magic it had at the film’s opening.

Not contained in this summary of the plot is the quirkiness of Mood Indigo‘s world. In it, breakfasts come alive through stop-motion animation, TV chefs can reach through screens to hand you ingredients, a particular style of dance called the “Biglemoi” gives you longer legs, and rooms can change shape depending on the style of music playing. Almost nothing (space, time, embodiment, sensation) in this world is governed by consistent rules — or there are ways to subvert these rules. Synesthesia, the perception by one sense of a sensation from another, is simulated by Colin’s “pianocktail,” a piano that mixes a cocktail that reflects the mood of the piece you play.

This world is engaging in that it upends many of the regulations we expect to govern not only reality, but narrative as well: Colin’s story is actually being written by an assembly line of people on typewriters, with whom Colin is able to communicate through a television monitor in his apartment. At one point, hard up for cash, Colin actually gets a job in this narrative assembly line, but as a single worker responsible for only one line, is unable to change his own story.

Many of these ideas work well in the beginning of the film, as instead of constructing an alternate universe with a separate set of rules as in the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, Gondry and co-screenwriter Luc Bossi simply suspend any (or most) rules. And instead of portraying the world as altered purely by the subjective experience of a protagonist, they foreground the fact that this universe is under the control of an assembly line of typists, challenging rather than reiterating notions of free will and individualism.

My appreciation of the film, however, is pretty limited to these more conceptual reasons: emotionally — as narrative — Mood Indigo lost me about 20 minutes in. Very quickly, the playful world constructed — or perhaps more accurately, opened up — in the film’s first minutes is hampered by a much more familiar story about heterosexual love, with rote categories for everyone to fall into. The idealized, flat female characters, the men who must overcome weaknesses or personal struggles in order to save/support/win them; the victimized woman, the existentially bereft man. Chloe’s illness is caused literally by a water lily in her lung, which must be treated by holding flowers to her chest — one is tempted to make an argument regarding stereotypes about women’s delicacy and their association with flowers, but it probably suffices to say that this is almost insufferably cheesy.

That being said, the limits of sufferability are highly subjective. Given Gondry’s work since he entered feature filmmaking, Mood Indigo is hardly a surprise. His films tend toward being formally complex and inventive, but emotionally broad and straightforward.

Arguably, the recognizability of the emotions and of the stakes of the story may even help anchor the more wild effects of the form, and what I find cheesy may simply be another person’s “universal” or “true.” (Gondry certainly thinks so: he opens his film with an epigraph from Boris Vian that goes, “This story is entirely true, because I imagined it from beginning to end.”) In any case, Mood Indigo is probably pretty close to what you think it is, whether that’s to your liking or not.

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