About halfway through Mood Indigo, a film of inexhaustible creativity directed by Michel Gondry, the apartment that Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou) call home begins to change dramatically — the ceiling starts closing in, and a thick layer of cobweb starts covering the walls and windows. “My place is doing the same thing, but I think it’s an illusion,” says a friend when she drops in for a visit. “As you go through life, places seem smaller.”
The effect is an illusion in the cinematic sense, of course — one of many that Gondry brilliantly creates in this film using visual effects (stop motion, puppetry, scale models and plain old dress-up) that hearken back more to the birth of cinema and the Méliès brothers than to Transformers. But the illusion of shrinking rooms and changing worlds is also familiar to almost all of us from everyday life; it takes little more than a hangover, after all, for us to realize that physical spaces can appear to mutate according to our moods.
Gondry’s appreciation and insight into this phenomenon lends his special effects work more significance than mere playfulness. Adapted from a Boris Vian novel, Mood Indigo begins with the wealthy Colin discovering that both his best friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and his chef/assistant/friend/lawyer, Nicolas (Omar Sy), have recently fallen in love. “I demand to fall in love, too,” Colin exclaims, and so he does, shortly after, when he meets Chloé, with whom he embarks on an idyllic love affair: Their first date takes place on a cloud-shaped saucer that gets lifted by a crane to give them panoramic views of Paris, where the film is set.
The cute factor of Gondry’s invented world at first threatens to overwhelm the movie, as does the sheer number of effects that he unleashes, which make the project appear like a mere excuse for him to show off his visual talents. That threat is only heightened by the fact that there’s little drama at first in the story. Chloé and Colin’s love suffers no hurdles as Colin’s wealth allows him to fix any problems that he or his friends might encounter. Everything is splendid, and the whole world, as Colin puts it later, “seems to smile.”
Only as Colin and Chloé’s lives begin to unravel do the pieces of Gondry’s story start falling into place. Shortly after their wedding, the story takes a darker turn. It’s just beyond this point that their apartment begins to contract, and the color begins to fade from Gondry’s world. The film’s first half, it turns out, was just a particularly naïve fantasy within a world of make-believe.
The shift connects Mood Indigo to Gondry’s otherwise wildly different, but just as fantastic, previous film, The We and the I. That movie was set entirely on a Bronx public bus filled with students on their way home from high school. Apart from the sheer length of the trip, the film was a visually understated work of realism. Its journey, however, also took us from artifice to authenticity: It was only as some of the students began to vacate the bus, and social pressures slackened, that the remaining kids revealed their individuality.
In Mood Indigo, Gondry is more interested in the physical plane than social relations. The world’s transformations in the film signal a shift from the feverish high of finding first love to the desperation of watching it pass away. The changes also, more specifically, reflect the depletion of Colin’s wealth. His money is represented in part by objects — by the inventions he builds and the extravagant meals he can afford — but Gondry is just as interested in how we imagine spaces differently depending on levels of affluence — wealth is open expanses and sunny days, poverty is cramped living and grey tones.
Much like Wes Anderson, particularly the recent Anderson of Moonrise Kingdom and Grand Budapest Hotel, Gondry here uses larger-than-life visuals to embellish and fill out one-dimensional characters, not as a form of compensation but as conscious choice in style. Their work shares a children’s-book quality, a sense of wonder, and a firm belief that there’s no metaphor that isn’t better off literal. In Mood Indigo, Colin builds a pianocktail, a machine that fashions a unique cocktail based on whatever song you play on piano. And at one point, Nicolas ages eight years before our eyes from stress. It’s a universe that’s both rudimentary and futuristic: You get the sense that if this world had mobile phones, they would just be rotary phones that followed you around on wheels.
Gondry and Anderson are among the most creative directors making movies today, both working at the peak of their powers. There is a fundamental difference between the two artists, though. If Anderson’s movies are pristine, precise and methodically arranged, Mood Indigo thrives on clutter and near-total loss of control. And that, in turn, is reflected in their differing worldviews. Like Moonrise Kingdom, Mood Indigo is at heart a moving love story, but it’s one with a markedly different underlying sentiment, one where the return of things to their natural order is never preordained.