Here’s a fancy little word to add to our artsy film discussion Rolodex: ostranenie. From the Russian for “defamiliarization,” ostranenie is the artistic practice of taking things that have become commonplace and prosaic and finding a way of presenting them in an unfamiliar, shocking, exciting, or in some other definition of the term, new light. It’s a foundational precept for movements from Dada to guerilla communications, and it advocates the idea that any work that can get us to see anew the wonder and strangeness in the world around us has value.
I bring this up because I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a film that embodies the spirit of ostranenie quite as fully or thoroughly as Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo. This is a film that could almost be called stubborn in its refusal to show us any aspect of our daily lives if it cannot first be injected with a sense of fantasy or offbeat quirk. It’s set in a version of Paris where doorbells come to life as insectoid creatures that must be caught and crushed to silence them, where impatient shoes set off on their own when their owner takes too long, and where the only way to get a drink is to play the right melody on your pianocktail. (exactly what it sounds like) A [BLANK] is never just a [BLANK], everything is always warped out of shape, combined with something else, or just reshaped so that its inherent weirdness is more on the surface than it normally is.
Gondry has already achieved renown as a master of visual invention in everything from White Stripes music videos to full-on surreal epics, but his talents and style have never quite exploded the way they do here. This is a film that throws everything and the kitchen sink into its impressionistic depiction of life. A single scene might contain everything from digital creations and color effects to in-camera tricks and Svankmajer-esque stop motion, all wrapped up in unbelievable, garish production design courtesy of Stéphane Rosenbaum. It’s an all-around work of aggressive creativity, guaranteed to show you some things you’ve never seen before.
Now that we’ve covered that… what’s the story? Rich Parisian Colin (Romain Duris) is leading a perfectly happy life in the company of his combination attorney-chef (Omay Sy, a seemingly inexhaustible source of charismatic fun) until he meets beautiful Chloe (Audrey Tautou) and falls in love with her. Colin decides to pursue her and… well, as you may have guessed already, plot is not this film’s top priority. The growing relationship between Colin and Chloe is the film’s central organizing premise, but it’s used more as a thread to gets us from one amazing visual experiment to the next than as a thoroughly developed story in the classical sense.
The characters in Mood Indigo encounter obstacles and setbacks from the first scenes of the film, but for the most part these are so trivial and easily overcome that they barely register as speed bumps. Eventually, something emerges as the film’s real source of conflict and trauma, but it comes so late (well past the film’s halfway point) that some might consider it a spoiler to even say what this is. These are not insurmountable issues, but they’re magnified by the fact that the main plot is constantly fighting various focus-pulling distractions for screentime. There’s an extended subplot involving Colin’s best friend (Gad Elmaleh) that veers wildly from the funny to the very grim, as well as various escapades that don’t seem to add up to much aside from giving Gondry an excuse to visit and remake another corner of Paris. Most distractingly, the film often cuts to a long, assembly line-like room where an anonymous group of men and women pound away at typewriters, writing what seems to be the novel the film is based on. What does this bizarre metafiction quasi-framing device mean? What does it add to the proceedings? Your guess is as good as mine, honestly. The film doesn’t lack for ideas, but it’s all a bit of a tangle.
Caught in the middle of the maelstrom are Duris and Tautou, reunited twelve years after their initial union as cinematic lovers in Cedric Klapisch’s L’auberge Espagniole, and they had difficult mission. With so much of the film’s priorities weighted towards visual spectacle instead of plot, it falls on them to provide for the audience’s emotional engagement, not to mention keep them grounded for all of the nonstop whimsy. They both do their utmost, but ultimately they have little to work with beyond sheer force of will and personality. The movie operates in such an over-the-top setting, that it ends up being hard to see the two leads as much beyond an extension of the cartoon motion, which makes it hard to ever fully engage with them. Or care about them.
Is Mood Indigo a boring film? No… it is too full of invention, too packed with impressive details or extraordinary flair, to ever be genuinely tedious. But it does feel somewhat aimless, and it definitely feels exhausting. The onslaught of surreal imagery is so unrelenting, so without contrast, that after a while it begins to feel washed out. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, widely regarded as Gondry’s best film to date, was more modest with its experimentation, but it didn’t have Mood Indigo’s formal monotony. It had sections that felt very outlandish, sections that felt almost naturalistic, and multiple layers in between, and there was a clear narrative element that organized these modes of operation for the viewer. Mood Indigo is neither as carefully modulated nor as beautifully unified as that film, and its impact is accordingly less profound.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
It’s disappointing that Gondry’s latest film lacks the restraint and storytelling discipline that made some of his earlier works soar, and yet… Oh man, taken on a moment-by-moment basis this film is so full of top notch animation and creative visual flair that it’s hard for me to just write it off. I haven’t even told you about its go-kart-race-through-a-cathedral wedding, or its splitscreen, multiweather picnic, or its… well, you get the idea. Does Mood Indigo work as a narrative film? No, or at least not as fully as I’d like it to. But does it work as a visual experience? Well, let’s just say that if you’re the kind of person who loved the “Close to You” sequence in Dave McKean’s Mirrormask, the “I’ve Just Seen a Face” color extravaganza from Across the Universe, or the animated interlude in The Fall, and lament the fact that we don’t often see more of that kind of stuff, oh boy do I have a film for you.