L’écume des jours (or Mood Indigo/Froth of the Daydreams) co-written and directed by famed French director Michel Gondry is one of the most delightfully odd movies I have ever seen.
It clutches the bizarre, the strange, the whimsical and the downright fanciful close to its storytelling breast at all times, never once letting us forget that it is based on a much-loved 1947 French book by Boris Vian, an author who favoured the surreal and the made-up over the ordinary everyday, called Froth of the Daydreams.
While it veers into darker, more nightmarish territory as the story progresses, we are always aware that the world that Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and their good friends Chick (an almost unrecognisable Gad Elmaleh), Alise (Aïssa Maïga), and Nicolas (Omar Sy) who also functions as Colin’s mentor and cook, inhabit is a magical step or two hundred away from the one in which we live.
Reminded almost to the point of distraction alas.
While I love the idea of a chef who lives in the TV or fridge of the kitchen dispensing cooking instructions and even handing over correct ingredients, and was charmed by shoes that outrun their would-be wearer or an insect-like doorbell that pursues you till you destroy it and answer the door, and smiled like a fool at the whimsy of guitar strings made of sunlight, this torrent of stop-motion images almost veers into visual overload as wacky image after wacky image is thrown at you with endless manic energy.
There is no doubt that Gondry, a highly imaginative idiosyncratic director who is the perfect fit to bring Vian’s enduring tale to life once again – it has been made into three films previously and an opera – has succeeded in creating a highly unusual world that resembles our own in overall form albeit one with an inherent oddness that our more banal day to day world would never countenance, but it interferes with the all too human narrative that is trying to get through.
Which is pity because the surrealism of Vian’s novel, and that of Gondry’s vividly-realised daydream world, is designed to highlight, not detract, from the all too real struggles of Colin to fashion, along with his wife Chloé, who he marries with dizzying speed after a go-kart race through the church to decide who the priest will marry that day – Chick and Alise, who met over a shared love of made-up philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, which ends up ruining their lives – a meaningful, happy life.
Their tale is anything but surreal, replete with a painfully real longing for true love and belonging, marital happiness and then despair as Chloé falls deathly ill with a lily on the lung – yes an actual lily that can only be treated by endless bunches of flowers that must wither and die on her chest to treat her – the loss of Colin’s fortune, which is spent on buying the flowers his wife needs to survive, his search for work after a lifetime of closeted jazz-listening pianocktail (yes his piano makes cocktails) indulgence, and the romantic struggles of friends Chick and Anise.
But all of this rich excess of human experience, that anyone with a heartbeat can relate to, is lost beneath the never-ending on-rushing river of whimsy that includes eels that live in kitchen pipes, dresses that come alive and might bite you, and guns that are grown by naked men lying on mounds of dirt for 12 hours, the characters’ emotionally-bare struggles almost pushed to the margins to the point where any connection with them is lost.
That it is a visual feast for the imagination is beyond doubt.
Gondry has crafted a moving tableau of whimsical imagery that delights and beguiles, almost entrancing you with its surrealist ardour, but he fails to marry it with the narrative in any effective manner rendering the movie all froth and very little impacting substance.
It is almost like being given the keys to a cinematic candy shop and being told you can eat whatever you like.
Overwhelmed by all the colour and movement, you binge on the candy canes and jubes, the caramels and the boiled lollies forgetting that there is a nourishing, savoury buffet within reach too.
Or perhaps you are never aware you could be dining on the more wholesome food in the first place, even though it is there right before you.
Mood Indigo is a delight in many ways, allowing us to escape our dreary, gravity-obeying lives for a world where anything can happen and most likely will, and as the evocation of a world removed from our own, it is a triumph.
But as a vehicle for telling the story of one man, the finding of the love of his life and her loss, and the struggles of their friends to craft meaningful, enduring lives, it fails to draw you in as it should, leaving you staring in from the periphery which, unless you’re careful, may just scoot off on roller skates while you’re standing there trying to figure it all out.