Movie review: 'Mood Indigo' a surreal trip to colorful fantasy world

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If I were Dr. Freud and had French director Michel Gondry on the psychoanalytical couch, I’d say the filmmaker’s mother was frightened by a faucet and a typewriter when petit Michel was in the womb.

Clear cellophane strips (instead of water) spurted out from the spigots, and a monstrous Royal manual chased the hero of his previous film, “The Science of Sleep.”

In his current entry, eels keep popping out of the sink spouts, as a pool of stenographers peck out the plot on typewriters that move — Lazy-Susan fashion — in concentric circles.

'Mood Indigo'

Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh.

Rating: PG-13 in nature for some mild sexual content and subtitles.

Just for openers.

Mr. Gondry’s “Mood Indigo” is a stunningly surreal fantasy romance that gradually evolves from oddball comic to oddball tragic. It’s set in highly stylized Paris, where rich hedonist bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) dawdles over developing his “pianocktail” — a fantastic piano in which each key is connected to a different liqueur, producing a cocktail perfectly mixed to the music played on it.

In this and all other activities, he is attended by his faithful chef-butler-lawyer Nicolas (Omar Sy), whose delicious dishes are as restless as Colin: The gourmet food never just sits on its plate, patiently waiting to be eaten. It jumps, squirms, performs — and often tries to escape.

Enter Colin’s best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a fanatical devotee of philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, whose forthcoming “Encyclopedia of Nausea” (in 20 volumes) is much anticipated. Chick has a hot new American girlfriend, and lonely Colin is envious. “Unfair,” he laments, “ — I demand to fall in love, too!”

Soon enough, he meets winsome Chloe (Audrey Tautou) at a party, they dance to her eponymous Duke Ellington tune and fall wildly in love. But their whirlwind courtship and marriage is followed by a strange illness: Something seems to be growing in Chloe’s lung. Its equally strange cure seems to be an endless supply of fresh flowers.

The dazzling, dizzying, often hilarious images accompanying all this are reminiscent of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” — on acid. A kitchen drawer opens up to reveal a tiny garden tended by a humanoid mouse. Colin’s self-lacing shoes twist him into knots, like Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” A door buzzer turns into a bug that keeps getting loose and has to be squashed. A race to the altar for his marriage ceremony ends below a crucifix that turns into a spaceship for the newlyweds.

Best-in-Show of the Bizarre: After he blows his fortune on Chick’s whims and Chloe’s expensive treatment, Colin has to get an agricultural job — raising a crop of assault weapons that require naked men lying atop the earth to make them grow.

See to believe ...

The phantasmagoric elements of auteur-director Gondry’s fragmented genius were better employed in his celebrated "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), with Jim Carrey undergoing the Lacuna Company’s memory-erasure process in a terrific script by Charlie Kaufman. This script (by Mr. Gondry and Luc Bossi) derives from Boris Vian’s 1947 cult novel “L’Ecume des Jours,” much beloved in France but little known here despite many translations, three film versions and an opera based on it (under such titles as “Froth on the Daydream,” “Foam of the Daze” and “Spray of the Days”).

Turns out that novelist Vian was real-life friends with both Jean-Paul Sartre (the butt of his Jean-Sol Partre joke here) and of Duke Ellington, whose delectable “Caravan,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “African Flower” enhance this film greatly. "Mood Indigo" itself (1930) was Ellington’s first tune written specifically for microphone transmission and radio broadcast.

Alas, in the end —- like the Dadaist dreams of Dali and the existential gloom of Sartre — everything must go! Where? Into the great cosmic garbage-compactor. And whither thence? What do we lose in forgetting — or gain in remembering?

The performances of Mr. Duris as Colin and of ageless Ms. Tautou (“Amelie”) as Chloe are lovely, as is Mr. Sy’s as Nicolas. But director Gondry has trouble melding them with his pyrotechnics into a potent whole. His craft comes at the expense of plot and character. Everybody and everything takes back seat to the mood-and-mind altering visuals.

The resulting sensory overload is a magic realism in which New Wave meets Monty Python — playfully peripatetic to the point of frantic. It’s not to be missed for its virtuosic visuals and unique tour-de-force storytelling style.

But real virtuosic storytelling requires a virtuosic script — like Mr. Kaufman’s for “Eternal Sunshine.” Without such, however gorgeous to look at, this trip just trades the spotless mind’s light for moody indigo-blues.

In French with English subtitles. Opens today at the Melwood Screening Room, Oakland.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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