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Childlike delight, adult tragedy

French director combines surreal, sorrow to mix intoxicating cinematic cocktail

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 Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou have a surreal romance in Mood Indigo.

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Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou have a surreal romance in Mood Indigo.

Fun fact: Before he wrote the bestselling 1970 tearjerker Love Story, the late author Erich Segal also penned the screenplay for the hallucinogenic Beatles animated feature Yellow Submarine.

With Mood Indigo, French director Michel Gondry effectively conjoins those two works.

Imagine a trippy, tragic love story. Voila!

Gondry takes the implicit challenge of this hybrid with creative gusto. He has always been the kind of filmmaker who comes to play. Sometimes, the invitation to play with him is a welcome engagement (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Be Kind, Rewind). Sometimes... it is not (The Green Hornet).

Made in his native France, Mood Indigo is a film very much on the welcome side of the ledger.

An adaptation of Boris Vian's surrealist novel L'écume des jours, it is the story of Colin (Romain Duris), a wealthy bachelor with a live-in cook named Nicolas (Omar Sy, the charismatic star of The Intouchables) who also doubles as his wingman.

Nicolas facilitates an invitation to a party, where he meets the charming Chloé (Audrey Tautou, star of Amelie, has experience playing the gamine-heroine in a surreal Paris.)

After a magical courtship, they marry. Alas, Chloé develops a cough. You can guess the rest.

But no amount of guessing would anticipate Gondry's surrealist/expressionist treatment of this story.

Gondry touches all elements of the story with a child's perspective. Colin's bachelor pad has a mouse (a man dressed in a mouse suit) who helps him out. When Colin and friends get down with the latest dance sensation, their legs go all long and bendy.

The film's notion of technology is especially, delightfully juvenile. (If only Google Maps actually did incorporate a steampunk telescope.)

When life is good, the world is full of colour and wonder. To suggest the weightless feeling of being in love, Gondry simply photographs the wedding couple underwater.

And when things go wrong, the world becomes smaller, colours are leached out, and characters visibly age over a course of hours. A sense of poetry is retained, however. (The word "cancer" does not come up. Chloe has a water lily growing in one of her lungs.)

The common problem with movies like this is that all that front-loaded fantasy can get exhausting after a while, and that is bound to afflict a movie with a running time of just over two hours.

But when it delights, it really delights. Especially enchanting is Gondry's lo-fi approach to visual effects, particularly his reliance on stop-motion animation instead of humdrum computer animation.

The movie has bonus curiosities. After Gondry's fellow Frenchman Luc Besson dissed French food and French provincialism in the recent crime comedy The Family, Gondry takes the opportunity to satirize the revered existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre with a nonsense-spouting cult figure named Jean-Sol Partre. What's with all the self-loathing among French filmmakers these days?

Gondry wraps the whole thing in a narrative device that suggests the entire story as we see it is being written by a roomful of literary drones on typewriters that move from side-to-side on conveyer belts so that each typist can only write a few words at a time.

One can't help wonder if this isn't a portrayal of Gondry's experiences in the Hollywood studio system, literalizing the concept of "screenwriting by committee."

Fortunately, Gondry's love for the filmmaking process is still very much in evidence.

And love means never having to say you're sorry you made The Green Hornet.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2013 C3

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