Film of the Week: Mood Indigo
Since the advent of CGI, people no longer talk much about “unfilmable” novels—or if they do, they generally mean novels that can’t easily be filmed because they’re too nebulous, or bulky, or purely linguistic. But anything that simply involves spectacle and the fantastic is no longer a problem, as long as you can afford armies of VFX techies to crunch algorithms.
But here’s a prime example of a novel which was long considered a classic case of the unfilmable: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des jours, the title usually translated as Froth on the Daydream, though it literally means “The Froth of Days.” Written in 1946, Vian’s novel is pure fantasia, the story of the burgeoning and tragic demise of a romance, set in a surreal postwar Paris, something between a Lewis Carroll daydream and a futuristic utopia that abruptly turns sour. L’Écume des jours, with its ludic flights of free association and its jazz-fixated aesthetic (imagine Rimbaud if he’d been a Louis Armstrong fanatic), is the sort of book you visualize so vividly while reading it that there doesn’t seem any pressing reason for actually turning it into images on a screen. (In fact, the book has previously been filmed twice: once before in France in 1968, and more recently in Japan as Kuroe, aka Chloé, with a cast including Tetsuo iron man Shinya Tsukamoto.)
The book belatedly became a cult item in France in the late Sixties, but Vian, who died in 1959 (while watching a movie adaptation of another of his novels, I Spit on Your Graves), was already famous in various guises. He was a postwar Saint-Germain scene-setter, a scandalous crime writer (writing Spillane-ish faux-American thrillers under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan), a jazz trumpeter, a record company executive, and a singer and writer of acidic chansons. In his songwriting, he’s perhaps best known for the stately but impassioned antiwar anthem “Le Déserteur,” but he’s also the immediate precursor of Serge Gainsbourg, both in the way he used his creaky “non-singer” tonalities to superb effect and in his scabrous wit. (His S&M love song “Fais-moi mal Johnny” [“Hurt Me Johnny”], as sung by Magali Noël, is one of the most outrageously perverse numbers you’ll ever hear.)
In truth, I can’t imagine that even a version of L’Écume des jours starring Tsukamoto could be much stranger than Mood Indigo, which is the English title of the adaptation undertaken by Michel Gondry. You’d imagine that Gondry would be a perfect fit for Vian’s imagination: he’s a polymath steeped in pop culture, with a naturally transatlantic sensibility and a powerful streak of the unashamedly childlike vision that characterizes L’Écume des jours. Vian’s novel is indeed, in a sense, about childhood and its end. Its hero is a carefree playboy named Colin, who has everything—money, leisure, youth, and an attentive chef-manservant named Nicolas, who’s a cross between Jeeves and Escoffier, with a priapic streak. Colin also has a miraculous machine of his own creation, a “pianocktail”—a keyboard crossed with a drinks cabinet that, when played, turns jazz numbers into heady cocktails (a hep update on the “perfume organ” from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s manifesto for Decadent aesthetics, the 1884 novel Against Nature).
The only thing Colin lacks, and yearns for, is someone to love, but then he meets Chloé. They fall instantly in love and soon marry. But then (and I’m not revealing too much since this is one of the book’s most famous conceits), Chloé falls ill from a water lily growing in her lung—a parody of the Romantic myth of the consumptive heroine as seen in La Dame aux camélias, woman as exotic but transient flower.
One important feature of Vian’s book is that it isn’t purely about the whimsical paradise where it begins, but is just as much about the collapse of that paradise—for its characters are essentially children, doomed to become careworn adults before they are ready. As Chloé wanes, the world Colin and she share vegetates, shrinks (literally), loses its bloom, its joy, its energy. This is a tragedy of entropy and decay—and to Gondry’s credit, he’s as interested in the fall in Vian’s story as he is in the initial Eden. But I don’t think most viewers will come away haunted by the film’s dark passages: what will stick with most people, and no doubt severely rankle with many, is the goofy exuberance of the first half.
What’s remarkable about Gondry’s ambition is that he really has brought a vast amount of Vian’s material onto the screen. The film bombards us with ever crazier imagery: a humanized mouse dancing between “strings” of sunlight, tables of animated food à la Svankmajer, eels that pop in and out of water taps, and most gorgeously, a goofy dance called the biglemoi that turns dancers’ legs into elongated rubber stalks. The setting is ostensibly postwar Paris, but Gondry pursues Vian’s anachronistic turn, sometimes to inspired effect. There’s a sci-fi-primitive kind of video jukebox (put on an Ellington LP, and the Duke appears on a screen, played by, who else, August “Kid Creole” Darnell). There’s a sort of imaginary proto-Google system, which involves binoculars, a heavily staffed call center, and a creaky version of the pre-Internet Minitel system that was popular in France in the Eighties. There’s an inspired moment in which Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou) visit Les Halles in Paris and see it as the fenced-off worksite it has actually been of late—stepping out of the fiction into a vaguely recognizable now.
You could draw up an inventory of Gondry’s different types of visual ideas: literal representations of images in the text (an ice-rink worker with the head of a bird); more concrete variations of poetic images (a passing pink cloud here becomes a fairground-style car that the lovers ride, hoist aloft by a crane); elaborations of things simply hinted at in passing by Vian (like some otherwise inexplicable slapstick business with an over-lively chair); flights of fancy that aren’t in the text yet catch its spirit; and additions that are entirely Gondry’s own, like the inspired framing device of starting the film in a sort of text factory where armies of typists hammer out the story that’s being told.
The point is that Gondry does it all, and with indiscriminate energy, as if he doesn’t know what to leave out or to go easy on. He can’t resist any impulse to go the whole nine yards, and further still (which would explain the reported budget of $23 million). It means that much of the film will make no sense at all if you haven’t recently read the novel—and even then you’ll be lost some of the time. I had to look up the episode of the pharmacist’s shop where rabbits shit out pills after eating chrome-plated carrots, and I can’t conclude it was entirely worth Gondry’s trouble to actually portray this. That’s the big problem: everything in the film is so solid, so real-seeming (partly as a result of Gondry’s brilliant way with analog as well as digital illusion, and techniques like stop-motion), whereas the novel is by nature light, a construct of weightless, casually handled language from which images emerge as if by magic. Gondry’s habit of turning Vian’s poetic hallucinations into sight gags makes for a sometimes oppressive literalism.
There’s also a problem of coherence. The film currently runs at 94 minutes, pelting along at a rush that doesn’t always make immediate sense, even as pop surrealism. But the original cut released in France earlier this year was a full 130 minutes; I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine how the film would have been bearable at that length. There’s a fair bit of material in this shorter cut that feels like a set of scarred remnants from the original—fragments of a crazed public appearance by adulated philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton), borne aloft in a giant replica of his own pipe, and the end sequence which tumbles a little too abruptly into the depressive mood of the book’s dying fall. Still, the downturn in mood is distinctive and unforgiving, at odds with the reassuring pathos of weepie convention. Color increasingly bleeds from the film, the screen itself shrinks, darkly vignetted at the corners, and the end credits, over black-and-white footage of Duke Ellington projected underwater, offers as depressive a conclusion as I’ve seen on screen recently. I just wish this lugubrious turn felt fully earned—but perhaps that’s a result of the film’s radical contraction. And I wish that, as well as maintaining the melancholy, Gondry had managed to evoke the black satire and anger that are key to Vian’s anti-authoritarian, anti-military (and anti-work!) stance.
There are other problems, notably the casting. I’ve never warmed to Tautou, the original Gallic Pixie Dream Girl—but aged 37, and 13 years after Amélie, it doesn’t entirely suit her to be gamining around, all wide-eyed and bubbly. The same goes for tireless grinner Romain Duris (now 40), who even 20 years ago would have been too wolfish for virginal dreamer Colin. Gondry might have done better to cast two ingénu unknowns, but that doesn’t buy you a massive effects budget. It’s also irksome that he’s cast Omar Sy as Nicolas; it introduces a racial mix into the story, making it more plausibly about modern France, but at the uncomfortable cost of making Nicolas a compliant black sidekick.
Mood Indigo is, by any sane criteria, a quixotic, even ill-advised folly. There’s a certain overexertion to it all—like Terry Gilliam, Gondry is a Stakhanovite of surrealism, always compelled to push things that little bit harder when you wish they’d been handled lightly. Yet it’s hard not to marvel at his ambition, to be struck by the sheer joy, and sometimes beauty on display here. Whether Gondry’s flamboyant, insistent, and often expensive images match the weightless delirium you can conjure up for free by reading Vian is another question. Mood Indigo proves that L’Écume des jours can be filmed—but it probably can’t be, as film, successfully re-dreamed.