If ever a movie were lost in translation, it’s “Mood Indigo,” the latest from the scattershot genius Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep”). With his penchant for sad-sack dreamers and gonzo visual gags, Gondry can make a director like Wes Anderson look like a prig, and “Mood” allows him freer access to his fancy than usual. The opening sequence, with the ardent, antic hero Colin (Romain Duris) starting his day, plays like the breakfast scene from “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” retooled as a Gallic lark. Eels dart out of faucets, a kitchen drawer holds a tiny garden tended by a humanoid mouse (Sacha Bourdo), and the hero unveils his “pianocktail,” where each key brings forth a different liqueur. We’re already exhausted, and the movie has barely begun.
Gondry gets to indulge himself because his source does. The 1947 absurdist love story “L’Écume des Jours” (“Froth on the Daydream”) by Boris Vian is beloved in France and little known here, despite at least three existing English translations. Vian sounds like the subject of a great movie himself: An exuberant prodigy, he wrote novels and plays, performed as a singer-songwriter, studied math, played the trumpet, and counted Duke Ellington and Jean-Paul Sartre as friends. (The latter pops up in “L’Écume,” reinvented as the sinister philosopher Jean-Sol Partre.) All this before dying at 39 of a congenital heart ailment.
Vian’s novel has previously been adapted into a French film (1968), a Russian opera (1981), and a Japanese movie (2001), so Gondry’s version — originally titled “L’Écume des Jours” — counts as its fourth post-literary iteration. Which means this retitled version opening in US theaters should count as the fourth and a half, since 30 minutes has been cut somewhere along the way. Having not seen Gondry’s longer original, I can only say that “Mood Indigo” feels both overdone and undercooked —
a hectic but sketchy tale of oddball romance that slides inexorably into tragedy.
Despite being independently wealthy (he has a cupboard holding a fortune in “doublezoons”), Colin is a shy sort, pressed to get out and about by best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and by Nicolas (Omar Sy), a lawyer who mostly serves as Colin’s chef. At a party, the crowds part to reveal Chloe, who is played by Audrey Tautou, and suddenly you understand — this is why an irresolutely French film is getting released on this side of the Atlantic. “Amelie” was 13 years ago but Tautou seems strangely ageless, on the screen as in many moviegoers’ memories.
Colin and Chloe fall in love awkwardly, get married ecstatically, and almost immediately confront a crisis when Chloe is diagnosed with a water lily growing in her right lung. This may have been Vian’s poetic swipe at his own health problems, but Gondry literalizes it as he does everything in the novel, with a stop-motion playfulness that turns increasingly manic as the tone grows gloomier. “Mood Indigo” begins as a celebration of unfettered imagination and slowly caves in to entropy, the bright colors fading to tortured black and white and Colin’s sunny, Rube-Goldberg living quarters gradually overcome by decay. If the filmmaking weren’t so restless, we might even feel moved.
The film’s English-release title, of course, comes from the Ellington jazz song, and the soundtrack of “Mood Indigo” is magnanimous with classic Duke: “Caravan,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Chlo-e” and so forth. Unspooling under the end credits is a lovely mid-1960s live video of a solo Ellington playing “Fleurette Africaine (African Flower).” It’s by far the most touching moment in the movie.