Mood Indigo plays like some extreme behavioral experiment, an attempt to determine just how much whimsy, exactly, an audience can endure. Even fans of the film’s director, the French fabulist Michel Gondry, may reach their breaking point before the crawl of the end credits. Whereas most of Gondry’s movies create some narrative rationale for their lunacy—daydreams in The Science Of Sleep, collapsing memories in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—Mood Indigo exists in a world liberated from the laws of reality. Here, doorbells scuttle about like insects, bodies contort into strange shapes when dancing, and mice—or rather, tiny men dressed like mice—blow bubbles at the humans cavorting overhead. And that’s just the first five minutes.
The inspiration for these constant flights of fancy is a revered novel by the French author Boris Vian, whose brand of playful surrealism had a profound effect on artists of many mediums. Gondry, a professed fan of the writer, seems to have treated the adaptation process as a license to try every crazy practical effect he’s ever dreamt up. What he hasn’t done is invested much in the storybook romance around which the stylized lunacy swirls. Whereas plenty of big-screen love stories commence with a meet-cute, this one essentially depicts a life-cute, chronicling the childlike courtship of space cadet Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and her equally scatterbrained suitor, Colin (Romain Duris). The actors lean heavily on shtick—Tautou turning up the cute for her most Amélie-ish role since Amélie, Duris overplaying the lovesick fool routine. They don’t have much chemistry, but it’s not their fault: Gondry makes their relationship a weirdly sexless one, arranging the lovers like grinning mannequins in a string of loosely connected music-video vignettes. It’s cloying enough to make Wes Anderson gag.
From a purely visual standpoint, Mood Indigo is one of Gondry’s most overstuffed creations—a showcase for his love of stop-motion animation, exaggerated stage props, wacky gadgets, and elaborate production design. But his delight in orchestrating these elements is the only genuine emotion that comes through on-screen. Intolerably twee for its first half, the film takes a turn for the maudlin once Chloé inhales a flower that takes root in her heart, a malady that can only be treated by surrounding the waif with an endless supply of bouquets. Gondry handles this shift in tone through purely aesthetic means, eventually getting in touch with his inner Guy Maddin. But no amount of imaginative trickery can fill the void of feeling at the movie’s center. Whimsy for whimsy’s sake is just too much to take.