L’écume des jours
Michel Gondry (2013)
Just after seeing Mood Indigo, I read Adam Mars-Jones’s review of it in the TLS. The review’s first sentence is ‘Books described as unfilmable are turned into films on a regular basis’. Mars-Jones briefly discusses some of these adaptations before turning to Michel Gondry’s interpretation of Boris Vian’s novel L’écume des jours – which is, obviously enough, considered to be in the ‘unfilmable’ class. (The review doesn’t mention that it was first brought to the screen in 1968 by the Frenchman Charles Belmont then became a Japanese film, Chloe, directed by Go Riju, in 2001.) According to Mars-Jones, Vian in L’écume des jours ‘takes a conventional romance into unconventional territory, making use of various overlapping but not identicial non-realistic modes, such as surrealism, expressionism, and the absurdism that was in the post-war air if not yet much on paper’. Adam Mars-Jones thinks well of Mood Indigo all in all and, as usual, he writes persuasively: his review is more impressive than the film itself.
There were four people in the Curzon Wimbledon’s Green Screen at the start of the show. An elderly woman gave hopeful chuckles in the early stages but, within half an hour, had walked out, and so had a youngish man and I could understand why. Jason Solomons, singing the praises of Mood Indigo to a bemused Chris Eakin on the BBC News Channel’s film review slot the previous week, insisted that Gondry had succeeded in transcending whimsicality and that some of the film’s images were truly surrealistic. (André Breton was mentioned although I thought he was a surrealist in words rather than pictures.) The visual tricks are often ingenious; the set decoration is inexhaustibly inventive and often dazzlingly coloured; but special effects come too easily to cinema, even when it’s arthouse cinema, for the impact of this wizardry to have a sustained impact. It seems all the less unexpected when the director is Michel Gondry, whose speciality is mind-bending (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and/or shape-changing (The Science of Sleep) movies. Mood Indigo eventually becomes more engaging – but for reasons other than special effects. Perhaps Gondry gradually reduces the visual pyrotechnics or perhaps you simply get used to them. Either way, the human beings in the story are no longer submerged in them. The irony is that, while Boris Vian’s book ‘takes a conventional romance into unconventional territory’, this film gathers force through the emotions you’re expected to feel in a conventional movie about a loving relationship that’s being destroyed by terminal illness.
The relationship in this case is that of the glamorous newlyweds Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and the surrealism-cum-expressionism of the material means that her terminal illness is, for a while anyway, highly idiosyncratic. A doctor, when he first examines Chloé, hears ‘strange music’ in one of her lungs; he subsequently diagnoses the problem as a huge water lily blooming there. The treatment is virtually homeopathic: Chloé needs to be surrounded by flowers. (A synaesthetic motif runs through Mood Indigo. At the start of the film, one of the many mod cons in Colin’s bachelor apartment is a ‘pianocktail’: when a tune is played on its keyboard, the instrument produces a cocktail the taste of which evokes sensations also experienced while listening to the melody.) Nevertheless, what holds your interest increasingly is the change in Romain Duris’s Colin – from smiling, silly exuberance to tearful, hollow-eyed desperation.
Colin’s material circumstances change too as the emotional going gets tougher: he is introduced as someone so rich that he doesn’t need to work but the expensive treatments for Chloé’s illness force him to get a job – in an armament factory, using his body to incubate metal acorns that grow into rifles. His extensive, dandified wardrobe is reduced to a plain blue tunic and trousers which bring to mind the uniform of post-Cultural Revolution China. A few of Michel Gondry’s images have depth and resonance. These include both momentary details, such as Colin being pursued down the street by his own outsize black shadow, and repetitions with accumulating power – like the rows of typists who appear to be putting on paper the story of Mood Indigo. Their machines move towards and past them on a conveyor belt: at one point Colin joins them to try and get hold of a typewriter and control of what is happening to him and Chloé.
Those manual typewriters – black-and-red-ribboned, producing letters on a page with a ‘ghost’ imprint – are definitely antique but I often wasn’t sure whether or not Gondry had set the film in the late 1940s (when the novel was published) or the present day or outside any particular era. The charms of both Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou include looks that enable them easily to be time travellers but the frequent use of special effects in contemporary movies tends to obscure what may be meant to be futuristic in Mood Indigo. The cast also includes Omar Sy as Nicolas, who is Colin’s lawyer, mentor and chef (all the dishes he serves are works of art: chicken on the menu usually heralds the appearance of a Magritte-ish rooster on the food trolley) and Philippe Torreton as the celebrity writer-philosopher Jean-Sol Partre. (Vian was close to Jean-Paul Sartre and, as Adam Mars-Jones says, the satire here seems not to be of Sartre himself but of the cult of intellectual personality that built up around him.) The title of the film refers to the Duke Ellington song and Ellington appears here both in genuine archive footage and in mock-up footage, where he’s played by August Darnell (who used to be Kid Creole). According to the song’s lyrics:
‘You ain’t been blue,
Till you’ve had that mood indigo’
– but, in the wake of Chloé’s eventual death, Colin’s world, and the images in Michel Gondry’s film, turn to black and white.
7 August 2014