Michel Gondry is getting too much credit for the impotence of Mood Indigo. Like many critics, I watched the film before I read the book from which it was adapted. Assuming, despite my prior knowledge of author Boris Vian’s wordplay and surrealist imagery, that the over-the-top whimsy was Gondry’s contribution, I couldn’t suppress frequent “that’s so Gondry” eye-rolls. Oh look, our twee protagonists are floating in a plastic cloud above Paris: “Now, now, Gondry.” Oh look, our twee protagonists won’t stop acting like members of Alvin and the Chipmunks: “Cool it, Gondry.” Oh, look, our twee protagonists are jumping on the bed instead of fucking in it: “Gondry, that’s simply enough.” But when I opened the book, I was surprised to find that Gondry, alongside co-writer Luc Bossy, had merely been faithfully adapting the novel.
Even in the abridged American version, Mood Indigo still manages to follow the novel with the unwavering loyalty of a kid using his index finger to read his first chapter book. It’s strange, then, that these images – plucked directly from the highly acclaimed novel – should make for such a limp cinematic experience, especially in the hands of a visionary like Gondry.
The film – despite its ultra-tragic plot – never allows the audience to really feel that tragedy. My first thought was thus that it must have skimmed the surface of the book, somehow missing its emotional core. But this isn’t really the case – L’Écume des jours (the French title, which was earlier translated to Foam of the Daze before thankfully being renamed Mood Indigo in the film and in a new translation by Stanley Chapman) doesn’t offer us entry into the minds of its characters, either. Really, it suggests that the characters don’t even have minds to enter. Where the movie went wrong, I realized, was simply in trying to adapt a book that makes little sense outside the conventions of Post-WWII French literature.
Though with its fast, totalizing romance and a lung disease’s destruction of that romance, Mood Indigo bears similarities to the wrenching tragedy of La Bohème (fine, fuck off, Moulin Rouge), its tragedy hits more visually than viscerally, both in the book and in the film. Crafting realistic characters wasn’t a concern among Absurdists, among whom Vian’s work – especially his play The Empire Builders – is often peripherally cited. In fact, crafting realistic characters was the polar opposite of what they were attempting.
Playwrights of the Absurd notoriously used dehumanized, puppet-like characters as a means of expressing post-WWII alienation from selfhood: how could such a thing as individuality matter, or even exist, when war – especially The Bomb – had reduced people to bowling pins? Breaking down the fallacies of love, memory, social formality, and language, the Absurdist message was always a tragic one. It was rarely a matter of personal tragedy, though, because Absurdists’ characters never seemed quite like people. These frantic mannequins, rather, were generalized and psychologically simplified for the purpose of universalizing Absurdist messages (or anti-messages); Absurdists’ works weren’t about the specific characters’ existential horror and tragedy – they were about everyone’s.
In Vian’s Mood Indigo, published in 1947 and a precursor to a surge of Absurdist literature in the early ’50s, Chloé and Colin’s superficial, childlike enthusiasm distances them from traditional ideas of novelistic personhood. Vian never tries to explain a motivation for any character’s actions or desires beyond that of a very thin fairy-tale logic – a fairy-tale logic that, itself, debunks the notion that fairy-tale logic is the slightest bit sweet. So, despite what the movie’s marketing suggests — and perhaps despite what the movie itself wants you to think — this isn’t a “great love story,” any more than a love story a child creates between two dollies is a great love story. Protagonists Colin and Chloé (played with insufferable squeakiness in the film by Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris) only fall in love after Colin ridiculously asserts his desire to fall “in love by this evening — really and truly in love.” After he makes his proclamation, Chloé is the first girl Colin’s introduced to. What’s more, Colin’s desire is spawned by his attraction to his friend Chick’s new girlfriend – mostly because he is envious of Chick’s procurement of this visually pleasing void-filler. Not only are the characters disposable placeholders for the reader/viewer, they’re also (unbeknownst to them) disposable placeholders for one another.
Late in the book, when everything’s gone hideously awry, Chick’s girlfriend Alyssum asks Colin, “Why didn’t I meet you first?… I’d have given you just as much love – but I can’t now. It’s Chick I love.” Colin responds, “I know that… I love Chloé more than anyone now, too.” This passage suggests that the consuming love felt by the books’ characters – feelings that lead to homicide, poverty, and the destruction of all of Paris’ bookshops – is entirely random, that they could have developed the same connections to literally anyone. It suggests that the lugubrious fortresses of these relationships have absolutely no foundation, and that we’d ruin our lives for randomness disguised not only as purpose – but as the fundamental purpose of love.
Chick, played in the film by comedian Gad Elmelah, is also the victim of love, or an obsession resembling love: he cannot devote his attention to Alyssum, for he is too caught up in his expensive admiration for the writer Jean Sol Partre (translated in the book as Jean Pulse Heartre – a clever bit of foreshadowing for the gory finale of the Heartre plotline). Though Vian and Sartre were good friends, his caricature of Sartre – and the fanatical following he was developing at the time – is perhaps the book’s most unflattering portrait. (Because Nausea was one of Sartre’s biggest achievements at the time of the book’s publication, in Mood Indigo, Vian takes his idea of “nausea” literally, characterizing Heartre as a puke specialist who brings specimens of petrified vomit to his lectures). Vian inverts the fundamental tenet of existentialism — that, because of the absurdity/meaninglessness of existence as a whole, man is free to determine his own meaning — portraying existentialism’s rhetoric of liberation as its own sort of enslaving cult. This is not too dissimilar to his views on love.
It might seem that where Gondry went wrong was in casting a veil of sincere sweetness over a story that’s ultimately about the fallacies of love, but that sweetness is likewise a presence in the book. The real problem seems to be that the book is rooted in the Absurdist tradition of telling stories through flesh-bot caricatures, and that such a trope can work when reading (which is, of course, non-visual) or even watching theater (where ostentatious makeup and stylized movement are commonly used to dehumanize characters). Onscreen, in a narrative film – and especially one with such a boldly tragic narrative – because we’re watching actors who appear entirely human, we expect their characters to be fully realized humans.
That the characters in Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo never achieve this fullness therefore seems a fault in the storytelling more than a deliberate directorial choice (even though it is, indeed, that). We’re now 70 years removed from rapid, WWII-devastated reevaluations of meaning, and it’s easy to forget that poking fun at Sartre and using characters with the emotional depth of Polly Pocket once had a very pertinent, potent purpose. Michel Gondry didn’t get the book wrong — rather, he got it a bit too right.