Terence Nance is an artist originally from Dallas, TX. His first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won a Gotham Independent Film Award. The album of the same title will be released later this year.
So, here I am watching Michel Gondry’s new movie, Mood Indigo, a bittersweet romantic dramedy about Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tatou) based on Boris Vian’s 1947 novel of the same name. Clearly, I have an affinity for love stories that end badly and involve animation created by hand and on celluloid. Thus, Gondry is one of my personal heroes.
He takes his meticulous image-making to the next level in Mood Indigo. The first 15 minutes felt almost soooo Gondry that I thought it veered into self-parody… I mean, this guy is playing rays of sunlight rendered in yarn as if they are strings on an upright bass. C’mon son.
Anyway, listen up, haters. One must allow an artist their aesthetic vocabulary, which for my French brother from another is comprised of:
and things rendered frame by frame
OK, so, movie’s going swell, I’m loving the humor, the surrealism, the physical comedy. OK, Omar Sy… on screen smiling. OK, he’s cooking. Wait, OK… he’s the cook? Really, they cast him as this rich guy Colin’s cook? Really? OK. So they knew I would be distracted or have a problem with this Driving Miss Romain Duris situation… OK, they have clarified… he is his lawyer and mentor… OK, crisis abated… for now. (In the source material, Nicholas isn’t Colin’s lawyer or mentor, he is Colin’s manservant.)
The sense of play and the wide gap between lived reality and the movie’s version of reality has me nodding my head. I’m feeling it. So much so that I wanted to see the film go even farther outside of what we would expect, i.e., Romain Duris cast as Omar Sy’s manserv… sorry, lawyer and mentor, who happens to cook every single meal. Yeah, I guess that would have been too surreal.
Omar Sy as the magical negro and the male mammy is weirdly unself-conscious as a casting choice, but Mood Indigo‘s the type of movie that does make a person like me say to myself, “But who gives a fuck? It’s a good movie!”
I give a fuck.
OK… watching the movie…
They go to a very swanky party… oh, who is that?! The incomparable Aïssa Maïga is introduced, as Nicholas’ sister. I could watch her read a phone book for hours and because I’ve seen a movie where a guy like Colin loves a girl like Chloé, I instantly wanted the movie to be about her.
Alas, it wasn’t. A Gondry-esque flare of visual inventiveness is put to use when some magical downtempo cabaret jazz number is played. Everyone sits back in their hips and lets their elongated legs rhythmically stretch and bow. Smiles abound.
Of course, there is a scene here in which Nicholas, the magical negro, teaches our endearing but hapless young white protagonist Colin how to dance.
With the powers vested in me by myself. I hereby decree that from henceforth into infinity. Should any writer and or director include a scene in a film in which a Black sidekick teaches a white protagonist “how to dance” without parody, or irony, or bloody murder. Should you include this trope, you will have given me permission to rain down a plague of water balloons filled with Pepto-Bismol onto your head. The dry cleaner can’t even get that pink nastiness out, son. So… beware. (I’m talking to you, David O. Russell.)
Not only is this scene boring and soooo done, but Michel Gondry has now executed said scene so perfectly that you cannot, despite what I’m sure will be your best efforts, top what he has done.
Funny enough, Omar Sy played the exact same scene as more or less the exact same character in his breakout role in the French Cesar award-winner and cash cow The Intouchables (aka Magical Black Guy Saves the Soul of Disabled and Disaffected White Billionaire).
Anyway, it’s all gravy, as I said. I’m a sucker for love stories that end badly.
Audrey Tatou arrives. This is the most present and charming and engaging and demure and magical person to be on screen in, like, a hot minute. In this movie, she shows that she can die slowly with grace and humor and candor and so much sheer unadulterated cuteness that she might literally cause your cuteness receptors to cramp up and take a knee. She is somewhat forgivably a magic pixie dream girl, but the forgivability of this trope lies in the fact that Colin is nothing if not a magic pixie dream guy (who stays paid). Equanimity wins championships.
Everyone is happy until they aren’t. And Colin and Chloé are sooooo (insert baby talk) happy and adorable, they manage to share the most adorable, awkward first kisses in the history of cinema.
This is a Gondry affair, don’t get it twisted. Just so you don’t forget, he’s thrown some rear-projection in there and some fuggin’ stop-motion and some time-lapse and anthropomorphized animals and puns on puns on puns.
Not again! Why is this negro Nicholas cooking every meal they eat every day? If he is indeed a lawyer and that isn’t just a line they ADR’d after the fact, knowing Omar as the magicalnegro-mammie-tom would be distracting — then I’m going to need just as many scenes of him lawyering and mentoring as there are of him cooking and smiling and teaching the gentry how to Dougie!
A question arose in my head…
Who is the person in need of therapy?
The one who can’t enjoy a generously constructed metatextual art movie that happens to employ not-so-subtle blackface characterizations of its main black character? (Nicholas is some sort of Voltron mashup of the mammie-thetom-thebuck-themagicalnegro but The Goddess Aïssa Maïga somehow goes unscathed.)
Or the artist who can’t make a movie with a black lead without leaning on the aforementioned blackface stereotypes?
Or is it both of us?
By the power vested in me by… again myself, the governing body of the world created on this page — I reluctantly give Gondry a pass, mainly for this one line uttered by Aïssa Maïga which somehow for me evidenced some self-awareness going on in the wake of these supremely vexing casting / characterization decisions.
While racing a go-kart thingy to the altar to marry her fiancé, she says:
“We can change the whole narrative. We win and we are the heroes.”
I would like to ask her what her motivation was when performing that line.
For me, it felt like she was speaking to Gondry’s genuine desire to subvert the Idea that a movie like this had to cast someone like Duris as the rich, likable aristocrat who meets tragedy… Aïssa could have won and we would have been on the trip of another kind of movie. One we truly hadn’t seen before. Because in every other respect this movie is definitely some new shit.
All that said, I’m watching the movie in the context of American Film History, and this is a French movie. I think the same criticism was leveled against the critics of The Intouchables when the same criticism I’m leveling against Mood Indigo was leveled against that movie.
OK, back to watching…
Oh, nice… a scene where Nicholas is being a lawyer… Actually, it looks like he is doing some accounting… he even has that hat to prove it. The visor with the transparent bill. Since when do lawyers wear those hats?
I like that line in the vows, “safe from family and work.” Oh wow, this underwater rear-projection thing always works… like a charm. Awww, I want to have a weddddingg!!!!
Wait… Nicholas is their driver? Word? Driving Chloé and Colin. When will it end?!
Oh, and he‘s so strong and virile he can throw a woman from the first floor to the second? Why can’t Romain do this?
OK, back to the movie…
There is this moment where Colin and Chloé, whose names employ alliteration and suggest cosmic synchronicity in the rhythm of their iambs, are shown to be explicitly the same. Chloé says something about how something is very, very, very dull; she uses so many very’s that she is just performing some sort of extreme affinity to the idea of infinity. That linguistic act is a use of parallelism (the literary device) – earlier in the film Colin used the same string of very’s to describe something about his “pianocktail.”
The movie is getting very sad, and cynical, people are morose, murder happens, some rear-projected bookstore fire. Ironically, it’s springtime.
It captures something palpably real in its depiction of the devastation felt when loving someone who is living with a terminal illness.
Things are getting bad.
Nicholas is still cooking.
There is a moment late in the movie where Colin casts him off. Colin is broke and can’t take care of poor Nicholas. He has to yell at him in order to drive him away. Colin in his depression-addled stupor suggests that Nicholas take a job with another family. Colin does not suggest that Nicholas apply for a job as a Lawyer or Accountant, or Mentor. Colin specifies to Nicholas, “They are looking for a cook.”
Nicholas is so loyal. He calmly refuses to leave his employer’s side. Colin screams at the top of his lungs. He means business, his anger and rage are squarely aimed in Nicholas’ direction. After being berated, Nicholas sulks.
He looks directly at Colin and says to him… as if saying to us…