Mood Indigo is bitter candy, a heartbreaker that uses sugar as a trap. The director, Michel Gondry, has a brilliant, contradictory brain. He's a swoony pessimist, a big-dreaming romantic who believes in love at first sight but never lets his films end with a kiss. Instead, his idea of a happy ending in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his best-known movie, is leads Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet listing all the ways they'll make each other miserable and then deciding to go for it anyway. He may be the most honest man in Hollywood.
Yet Gondry is wrongly considered a child. His films look as if they were glued together by a genius prodigy, the moviemaking Mozart of the second grade. When he takes us inside his characters' heads, especially in the ramshackle The Science of Sleep, he transforms adult emotions into tableaux of construction paper, cardboard, and tinfoil. So there's a tendency to think of him too as naive. He's not. He's merely in love with love, yet he knows — even when his characters don't — that their fantasies are flammable.
If Gondry truly wanted us to believe in the impossible, he'd either polish his dreams with CGI until we can't discern reality, or make normal-looking rom-coms with Reese Witherspoon. His handicrafts are a tell: They're never perfect. While they dazzle the eye, what matters are the moments in between, that gentle slap on the hand when the spell wears off and we see his characters left blinking and alone. On a smaller scale, Gondry walks the same tightrope as the grand, tragic operas that explode with feelings while still allowing the audience to creep close and cry. In making the world false, he exposes the truth: Love is glorious but fragile, and anyone who plunges into it has gone a little insane.
Mood Indigo: Starring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Charlotte Le Bon, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, and Assa Maga. Directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Michel Gondry and Luc Bossi. Based on the novel by Boris Vian. Opens Friday, August 1, at O Cinema, 90 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-571-9970; o-cinema.org.
Still, the first half of Mood Indigo is so over-the-top magical that I worried if Gondry's good sense had leapt from the rafters. Romain Duris plays Colin, a rich bachelor who lives in a mansion with his best friends Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and Nicolas (Omar Sy). He displays only two emotions: delight and hunger. Like a charming narcissist, he believes — rightly, in this case — that the universe exists solely to please him. Offstage, a bullpen of assistants handles all of his needs, and because he's so wealthy he doesn't work, the days in his sunshiny home revolve around inventing things that don't need to exist, like a piano that pours cocktails, and enjoying luxurious meals after which the three friends don't wash the dishes but simply throw them away.
Colin is so content that romance hasn't even occurred to him, until he realizes he's the only chap without a date, and then he insists on meeting a woman just because everyone else already has one, as if he's the last guy to own a cool pair of shoes. Chick and Nicolas promptly escort him to a party where, as seems natural in this pro-Colin universe, he instantly meets Chloé. Of course, she too is perfect — she's played by Audrey Tautou of the short bangs that launched a thousand ships. Of course, they fall in perfect, film-fantastical love, beginning with a first date on which they fly over Paris in a floating popemobile, their cartoonishly long legs dangling from the bottom like tube socks stuffed with bliss.
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Everything comes so easily to Colin that we begin to rebel against the film and sniff that perhaps Gondry does have Play-Doh for brains. Yet life — and Gondry — is cruel. Mood Indigo has force-fed us fattening pleasures, and eventually the butcher comes to collect. On Colin and Chloé's honeymoon, a flower spore implants in her lungs. It's a metaphor for cancer, a word the movie won't say, with chemotherapy represented by Colin bankrupting himself to crowd her sick bed with bouquets, which her doctor (Gondry himself, barging in to play a fool) swears will help heal her.
For some, the twee-ification of cancer will be a turnoff. But if Colin and Chloé's world were more mundane, just another story about mortals like us, we'd spend the movie judging their choices and telegraphing them practical advice. With reality askew, all we're invited to do is feel their pain.
The second act is a dirge. Gondry clicks off the color and clutters the screen with gray muck. Yet his expressionism doesn't overwhelm Mood Indigo's small, emotional truths: how Chloé protects Colin by pushing him away, how Colin does the same to his friends, and how grinding bills and implacable fate can chew up our hopes like ants descending upon a piece of cake. The movie's earlier fantasies feel doubly precious and doubly phony — Gondry's plan all along.
Marriage isn't easy, not even for golden-god Colin. As the man who was gifted everything sacrifices it all, Gondry asks us to wonder if Colin would have been better off never having left his sealed castle to meet Chloé. But we suspect he'd do it all again. Sure, chasing crayoned rainbows is romantic — but true love means grabbing an umbrella and following your sweetheart into the storm.