I got to catch the last half-hour or so of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the other day, and I have to say that I had forgotten how powerful and amazing that movie was. Aside from being one of the seminal times where you can point to Jim Carrey being more than a human embodiment of erratic behavior, it also uses surrealism to tell a touching story of heartbreak and loss and how that defines us. There have been other movies that have done (or at least attempted) as much, but the difference with Eternal Sunshine… is that it succeeds amazingly, mostly due to the fact that the action is all taking place within Carrey’s brain, excusing the insanity happening all around him. In essence, this assures that the audience bcan connect with the characters on a personal level. Which brings up a limit to the emotional connection surrealist films can have: it is hard to connect with characters living in a world so unlike our own. This is the same reason that surrealist films generally carry such broad symbolic messages (or maybe it is a chicken and the egg type situation?), usually revolving around politics, economy, religion, death, or an amalgamation of all of these. This surrealist conceit does not concern Michel Gondry, though (the director of Eternal Sunshine… and Mood Indigo), as he bends emotion to fit into his strange vision of the world.
Where Eternal Sunshine… worked was the built in narrative excusing the insanity of the world the characters inhabit, Mood Indigo is not interested in such excuses. The audience is simply thrown into the whacked out world that (I can only imagine) Michel Gondry prays to wake up in every morning. There is a helpful mouse man that runs around, a piano that also makes cocktails (a pianocktail, if you will, cause the movie sure does), and food that veritably dances on the table for the guests, all in the house of the main character Colin (no last names in this movie). It is a strange way to be thrown into a movie, but it at least establishes what we are to expect from the rest of the film. When Colin’s friend, Chick (a man immensely obsessed with the Jean-Paul Sartre stand-in for this world, Jean-Sol Partre), comes over to the house, he begins speaking of the woman he has fallen in love with and Colin exclaims how he would like a woman to love. Cue my disinterested eye rolling.
You have to understand, I love French film. I will enjoy a mediocre French film more than I will enjoy a mediocre American film. This may be a language barrier thing, but I honestly believe that French film-makers take their craft more seriously (which makes sense as French films are generally sponsored by the French government, in the interest of creating national art, something unthinkable in the off-the-rails money-machine that Hollywood has become). All that said, the quirkiness of this film has already been dialed up to 11, I am having flashbacks of Amélie (even the character of Chloé is played by the actor that played Amélie), and now they’re going to bring ‘finding love’ in as the first plot point (well, besides the pianocktail, which is actually an amazing idea, if wholly untenable). This is my problem with the genre of surrealism: it relies on broad universals, such that the personal muddies up the surrealist tone. It is almost impossible for the audience to identify with a character living normally in a fantastic world, so tackling issues such as ‘love’ turns into a Disney-fied exploration of the concept, where love becomes an end in-and-of itself, as if the audience should nod along, “yes, I do think love is a good thing.” It comes off as cheap and pandering, robbing a film of any seriousness it could hope to possess.
Mood Indigo ended up surprising me, though. It starts off campy and lovely and perfect, all the qualms that can make surrealism a poor genre, but devolves into subjects about death, war, obsession, and generally what makes life so…lifelike. I don’t want to spoil the movie and I would highly recommend it as a date movie (well, maybe a relationship movie, as this movie gets real deep and real unnerving). The first act is full of Colin’s longing for love, the party that he meets Chloé at, and his courtship of her. The second act shows them settling into their relationship, as the specter of sickness creeps into Chloe in the form of a water-lily growing in her lung (it makes sense within the movie).The third act is…well, that’s what I don’t want to spoil.
One thing I will discuss is one of my favorite parts of the movie: Mood Indigo is framed by a set piece of a room full of rows of people typing at typewriters that are on slowly moving conveyor belts (think of an extremely pretty sweat-shop type situation). As the typewriters move by, the people in each row lean-in to type on the typewriter when it is within reach and stay with it, typing, until they are leaning out to type while the typewriter moves out of reach (as if struggling to complete their thoughts), which the type writer then reaches the next person, beginning the cycle again (this is a hard concept to explain in words, I am quickly learning). There are men on each side handing out papers to type on, and collecting the finished papers on the other side. This room seems to be completely disconnected from the rest of the movie, aside from obviously residing within the same nonsensical world of Mood Indigo. It is an amazing visual metaphor for the sloppiness of life, and the different whims that go into each and every one of our development as a human. One of the more touching scenes of the movie is when Colin has suddenly appeared in this room, where he sneaks onto a typewriter, writing his story the way he wants it to be (we catch glimpses of this in scenes that apparently do not exist within his actual world), and forcing his way over people to make sure that his version is the story that gets told. But that just isn’t the way that it works. Colin is kicked out and his fate, much like within our own lives, is left to the machinations of a disparate group of disinterested authors.
Mood Indigo turned from the kind-of quirky slop (though admittedly exquisitely beautiful slop) that I can’t stand and by the end had veritably punched me in the throat, leaving me all but speech-less. The story of Colin and Chloé is as classic a love story as they come, in the most unusual packaging as could be used for such a story. Michel Gondry has done something rare, strange, and beautiful with Mood Indigo, turning an excuse for a conglomeration of quirky set-pieces and strange visuals, and making them into a coherent whole that speaks volumes about the human condition. Bravo, Mr. Gondry, Bravo.