In a 2006 New Yorker essay on the late French writer Boris Vian (1920-1959), Dan Halpern described Vian’s “L’Écume des jours” as a “deeply silly” piece of work. Judging by a new film based on Vian’s 1946 masterpiece, Halpern’s description wasn’t entirely a diss. “Mood Indigo,” the latest of three movie adaptations of Vian’s book that have been made since 1968, is characterized by a similarly schizoid ambition. Directed by Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) from a script he wrote with Luc Bossi, it is a droll, demented and slightly depressive tale of doomed love.
The plot of the book — the title of which has been variously, and somewhat meaninglessly, translated as “Froth on the Daydream” and “Foam of the Daze” — concerns the romance between a young, independently wealthy inventor named Colin and his beautiful bride, Chloé, who is stricken by a mysterious illness shortly after their honeymoon. Chloé’s malady, the symptoms of which resemble the sort of generic wasting diseases common to Old Hollywood melodramas, is caused by a water lily growing in her lung. The only thing that seems to help is to be surrounded by hundreds of flowers, which rapidly bankrupts Colin, whose only marketable invention seems to be the “pianocktail,” a keyboard instrument that assembles mixed drinks based on the music you play.
The preciousness of this setup — made more cloying by the kind of low-tech stop-motion animation that Gondry used in his twee “The Science of Sleep” — is tempered by the fact that the lovers are played by Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, two of the most likeable French stars working today. That Colin and Chloé live in a sort of retrofuturistic funhouse, attended to by a chef/lawyer (Omar Sy), who whips up meals that look like leftovers from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” and waited on by tiny man in a mouse costume (Sacha Bourdo) is made more palatable by the actors’ great charm. They are both as adept at conveying lightness as sorrow.
After an awkwardly whirlwind courtship that entails a tour of Paris in a mechanical cloud suspended from a crane, Chloé tells Colin that “If we screw up this moment, we try again. We have our whole lives to get it right.” And we so badly want them to get it right, even if Gondry’s increasingly dark foreshadowing suggests that they won’t — in fact, that no one ever will.
That mechanical cloud, which looks like something from an amusement park ride, is soon overshadowed by a gathering gloom, which starts to choke the film.
The way the story is told by Gondry (who also plays Chloé’s quackish doctor), there’s a universality to unhappiness. Vian’s text, snippets of which appears on screen in typewritten form, is shown being entered by an army of stenographers tapping away at vintage typewriters that have been attached to moving conveyer belts. The fatalistic moral of “Mood Indigo,” it is suggested, is one we are all writing in some form: Everything, including love, withers and dies.
At the same time, there’s a lot of silliness. Colin’s best friend (Gad Elmaleh) is obsessed with a writer/philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre (Philippe Torreton), whose name is a pun on Jean-Paul Sartre.
Partre’s presence, of course, isn’t exactly a throwaway joke. The sense, in the first half of the film, that love and contentment are attainable dreams slowly gives way to the more existential notion that happiness is really just a fairy tale.
★ ★ ½
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains brief crude language and a flash of nudity. In French with subtitles. 94 minutes.