Boris Vian, born in Paris 1920, managed during his relatively short life to make himself known as a musician, singer, translator, writer, poet, critic, actor, inventor and engineer. Although not gaining that much attention upon their publication, today he´s probably most recognized for his novels. Despite professional friendships with contemporary Existentialist icons Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus, his philosophy could be more aptly described as belonging to the Pataphysics originated by Alfred Jarry.
In English translation “L´écume des jours” became “Froth on the daydream”, telling the story of independently wealthy young Colin, living a privileged life with his colourful servant and cook Nicolas. Colin´s days are filled with exotic dinners with his friend Chick and experimenting with the pianocktail, a piano that mixes and serves up cocktails with ingredients depending on the keys played. All of this changes when Colin meets and falls in love with the beautiful Chloé. They are quickly wed and during their honeymoon disaster strikes. Chloé falls ill and develops a mysterious affliction where a water-lily grows in one of her lungs. Despite heroic efforts from Colin´s side, she succumbs leaving him heartbroken and destitute.
I remember falling for the romanticism of the novel when first reading it in my early twenties. Very different in content and tone, with a dreamlike quality just about balancing the obvious absurdity. The subplot of Chick´s obsession with the works of philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (Sartre in pretty translucent disguise) is a source of both humour and sadness, as it distances him from his beloved Alise. If you haven´t already, this book is definitely a recommended read, and while you´re at it why not have a go at his other novel “Autumn in Peking” too.
Not intuitively a story that would seem fit for a movie treatment, “L´Écume des jours” has however been filmed twice before. The first time by Charles Belmont in 1968 with the English title “Spray of the days”, later followed by an adaptation by Japanese director Go Riju called “Chloe”. Not having seen any of them I´m in no position to comment on their qualities.
Considering the themes and feel of this literary work, it´s not that surprising that French-born director Michel Gondry would decide to have another go at taking it to the silver screen. Beginning as a rock band drummer, Gondry quickly went from directing his band´s videos to becoming one of the most lauded music video directors of his generation, making seminal works for the likes of Björk, Massive Attack, Radiohead and The Rolling Stones (to name but a few). The creative freedom in video-making allowed him to develop a truly unique visual style, which he brought with him into his second career as feature film director.
Working together with meta-script writer Charlie Kaufman on his first two full length films made for hugely imaginative movies, with the second one “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” (2004) being a success both in the eyes of critics and the general public. The following “The science of sleep” (2006) maintained the surrealistic imagery while being slightly marred by a poorer script. His foray into comedy, “Be kind rewind” (2008), chronicling the two hapless video store clerks that has to recreate popular movies themselves after inadvertently erasing the store´s whole stock of VHS-tapes, was definitely more lightweight (most memorable for coining the term “sweded”, now in use in popular culture).His next two movies not feeling that interesting (2011´s “The green hornet” and 2012´s “The We and the I”), the prospect of Gondry taking on Boris Vian´s novel was much more intriguing.
Going by the English title “Mood Indigo” this is something that needs to be seen to be believed. Recreating the intricate Rube Goldberg-type contraptions of Colin´s home (most notably the Pianocktail) takes an imagination like Gondry´s. The style is kinetic, visually exciting and bafflingly original. I must confess to having a sweet spot for Audrey Tautou and she´s perfectly casted as Chloé, her acting so receptive to the overall surreal feel of the film. The story is of course absurd, but that´s not the point. If you´re prepared to suspend disbelief and just let the heart quiet the brain for a while there´s a wonderful experience awaiting. More of a hallucinatory, synaesthetic visual poem, where emotions shape the physical world, than a regular story. The musical prose of jazz aficionado Vian coming to life before our eyes and tickling the senses. And do notice the use of colour as an emotional cue, as we go from the hyper-intense Dali-like hues in the beginning to the gloomy grey-blacks of the chilling final scenes.
There´s a certain creative courage needed to go where this film goes, after all you´re expected to please the box office too. That said, it´s hard to imagine money raining down on this one. Maybe I´m just getting old, but it´s also becoming more and more refreshing with a film where violence is not a significant ingredient. While being one of the most used clichés of critical writing, this is probably a love-it or hate-it type of movie. I´m in the first group. Go see.