Author Boris Vian’s Mood Indigo seems like ideal wheelhouse material for filmmaker Michel Gondry: a brisk, batty surrealist parable that’s full of peculiar imagery and progresses steadily from whimsy to melancholy. It fashions a mid-century Paris funhouse that’s both more transcendent and earthbound than its real-life counterpart, sliding between major and minor keys with a deftness recalling the magisterial Duke Ellington piece that gives the novel its title. But Vian’s work is too rich of a source text for Gondry, who bungles the adaptation by indulging in homespun craftwork at the expense of plot and character detail.
The sad thing about Mood Indigo is that Gondry does manage to convey the novel’s bittersweet sense of duality, of a world that’s simultaneously stimulating and soul-crushing, but does so within a chockablock atmosphere that’s too frantic to ever come to life. A flaccid plotline isn’t necessarily the worst thing for a surrealist film: There’s not much dramatic thrust to Blood of a Poet or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but those films either sublimate narrative drives in imagery or substitute it with bracing satire. Gondry has never been a satirist, and his odd creations, while emphasizing a palpable tension between the joy of personal invention and the overwhelming soullessness of institutional structures, don’t have any cumulative dramatic heft. Instead, they play as the tossed-off imaginings of a sizzling mind, which means the book’s satirical jabs and bizarre images all end up tossed on the same landfill mound of quirk.
Rather than reinforcing the central narrative, the story’s many digressions and non sequiturs feel like distractions, rabbit holes for the famously craft-oriented director to tumble down into. Illustrating the world of Colin (Romain Duris), a young layabout who invents a cocktail-dispensing piano, falls in love, then watches his perfect little bubble collapse, the film diligently devotes itself to conjuring a dizzying procession of weird gadgets, gonzo animation, and handsome miniatures, from a pet mouse living in a tiny version of Colin’s apartment to a series of living dishes. It’s dazzling stuff, at least for the first 15 minutes, but all that sweetness quickly grows nauseating.
Piling on incident after incident, the plot progresses in a stumbling fashion that feels less like a coherent story than one haphazardly slapped together atop a series of discrete set pieces. The film at least never surrenders entirely to quirkiness, and never gets nearly as cloying as Amélie (despite the appearance of Audrey Tatou as Colin’s love interest). Gondry pulls off a bit of a twist on that sort of exaggerated whimsy, with little bits of morbidity that seem cute at first, but turn more sinister as they gradually overwhelm the sweet stuff. This dark disposition takes over as the film progresses, the color gradually draining from this candy painted world, but a precise handling of tone isn’t enough to salvage an otherwise tonelessly exhausting film.