Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mood Indigo is a bad movie to watch while eating tacos

We take our dinner in front of the television in my house.

We make no excuses. We make no apologies. It's just what we do.

We do have a practical rule, however, that confines us to English-language programming during dinner. When you're looking down at your plate to scoop up new bites of food, you're missing whatever's appearing on the screen for those two or three seconds. If you miss a little visual information, that tends to be okay -- or so we've determined. But if you miss reading the subtitles? You could be lost by the third bite.

That rule meets its toughest test when the viewing on tap for the evening is a foreign language film. We're both so tired these days, what with two kids under age four (who have both been sick for more than a week), that we just can't afford to spend dinnertime watching an entire half-hour comedy as an appetizer for the foreign film. If we don't start that movie close to 7:30 sharp, we ain't gonna finish it.

And so it was that we stretched our rule last night for Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo, which was due back at the library today. I'm most worried about my wife in situations like this, since she tends to more fastidiously assemble the bites on her fork, while I will just shove the food in the general direction of my face, as long as my eyes can stay fixed on the screen. But my wife is nearly fluent in the film's language, French, so I had only myself to worry about, and deemed I was up for the task. As long as most of the food made it in my cake hole, I'd be okay.

But I kind of forgot it was taco night. Or rather, it only came to be taco night about an hour before the movie, when my older son and I went down to the shops to fetch some beef mince.

Tacos require more assembly than most dishes a person could have for dinner, so the "shoving blindly toward the opening" approach wasn't going to work for me. Then complicate things by the fact that not only is it French, but the white subtitles often disappeared into the background, lacking the helpful little black borders around the letters that distinguish a good subtitling job. Then add the fact that this film's opening credits in particular are alive with activity, both visual information and rapid-fire French language dialogue, and you've got a ten-minute period that's even busier than the busiest sections of Amelie.

It's a miracle we made it through.

Glad we did, though, because those first ten minutes feature rows of typists typing on typewriters that pass by on conveyor belts, an eel sticking its head cheekily out a number of sink faucets in trying to escape the chef intent on cooking him, and a piano that makes cocktails, the type of which depends on the tune played.

This was a movie worth seeing every little bit of, and for the most part, we did.

And here are some other things I have to say about it ...

My rare head start

Haven't heard of Mood Indigo? Well, that doesn't surprise me. It hasn't even been released theatrically in the U.S. yet. That won't happen until July 18th.

So how am I seeing it here, on video -- and on video from the library?

Well, Mood Indigo was playing in cinemas here last October. I would have seen it, in fact, except for the fact that I was heavily focused on compiling my 2013 rankings, and I wanted to concentrate on movies people back in the U.S. were buzzing about. No one had even heard of Mood Indigo, so I worried that it had somehow just slipped through the cracks without even getting a U.S. release. A surprising fate for the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to be sure, but nothing that would qualify as unprecedented.

Then I realized -- we're getting Mood Indigo before everyone else. Nearly a year before, in fact.

It's not common, but this is the known flip side of the discrepancy between U.S. and foreign release dates, which I usually think favors the U.S. Some films -- mainstream films -- get released in places like England and Australia first. Especially if, you know, they were made in England or Australia. Or in this case, France.

Two other films that came out last year in Oz but not until this year in the U.S. are British imports Filth (starring James McAvoy and based on a book by Irvine Welsh) and the Steve Coogan vehicle Alan Partridge (known here as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa).

What do I love about all three of these films? They make easy adds to my 2014 list, since I still do design this list according to U.S. release dates.

I'm glad I waited on Mood Indigo, the only one of these three I felt a strong urge to see in the theater, because if I had seen Indigo last year, I would have felt compelled to count it in my 2013 list. Now that I've waited, I can rank it the same year as other American critics who see it for the first time this year.

And I also get to see it more than a month before most of the people reading this ... which is a rare feeling indeed, when half of last year's best picture nominees didn't even get released here until February.

Michel Gondry is back

Where had you gone, Michel Gondry?

The director of Eternal Sunshine seemed to be very much on track to continue dazzling indie audiences for the rest of his professional career, following up that 2004 hit with the only barely lesser film The Science of Sleep (2006). But when his next two films with Hollywood actors were the disappointing duo of Be Kind Rewind (2008) and The Green Hornet (2011), he seemed to have really lost his way.

But what concerned me most was when Gondry started making films I had to work to even hear about. The Green Hornet was only three years ago now, but those three years have featured a near return to obscurity for the Frenchman. It seemed that every time I turned around, I was hearing about a Gondry film that I should have been hearing more about. In 2012 he made some feature I had never heard of called The We and the I, and then in 2013 he followed it up with some documentary I had never heard of called Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? Their titles alone suggested to me that this represented a willful return to eccentric inaccessibility for a directed who felt burned by Hollywood. Since I don't even know what those movies are about, I'm going only on impressions here.

Well, I'm not going to tell you that Mood Indigo is some Hollywood popcorn film, but it does feel as though Gondry is getting back to what he was doing in Sunshine and Sleep. And that is most certainly a good thing.

Gondry's DIY, crafts-informed approach to visuals makes a major return here. If so-called "practical effects" are what we long to return to in our monster movies, you could say that Gondry's sets, props and artistic flourishes represent a kind of "practical artwork" that feels tactile and charming.

But what's truly memorable about Mood Indigo is the way Gondry almost entirely disregards the physics of this film's physical universe. Early on, characters master a dance craze that involve their legs curving and arcing like pieces of taut wire. An ice-skating scene features a character whose torso inexplicably elongates an additional 40 feet. Characters frequently lose track of gravity and go flying off either skyward or forward. This is to say nothing of the various inanimate objects that come to life, and animals that suddenly appear in speaking roles designed for humans.

Simply put, Gondry has rediscovered the joys of the impossible that disappeared from his post-Sleep Hollywood work. The result is an effort that does not live up to the impossibly high standards of Sunshine, and may not even be as good as Sleep, but is at least in the same conversation as both of them. It's whimsical with a capital W, but never crosses that fine line that might make it precious.

Nor is this to say that the movie is going where you think it will go, or that its tone will stay this upbeat. That's all I'll say.

The strange death of Boris Vian

Having thought she knew nothing about this movie going in, my wife quickly realized that it was based on a novel by French novelist Boris Vian. Not only had she read Vian, but she had actually read this particular novel, which was entitled L'Ecume des Jours (as is the movie in French -- literally, The Scum of the Days). The English title was Froth on the Daydream ... which I guess did not make a very good title for a movie. (But would make an excellent pairing with the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

I soon found myself discovering more about, and becoming steadily more fascinated by, this man, Boris Vian.

It turns out that Boris Vian, who died in 1959, had had just one other of his works turned into a movie. My wife told me that it was I Spit On Your Grave, the brutal 1978 exploitation film in which a woman goes on a killing spree avenging her own gang rape.

Not really what I expected from a guy whose other book was being turned into something that seemed like a cross between Jean Jeunet, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg.

It turns out my wife was half right. I Spit On Your Graves was indeed the title of the novel, but it was made into a 1959 film with the title I Spit On Your Grave by Michel Gast, not the 1978 Meir Zarchi film. It would seem that the two films are related, but the plot synopsis for the 1959 film on IMDB dispels that notion: "Joe Grant, a light-skinned African-American, heads to a small Southern town to investigate the lynching death of his brother. He draws the attention of a gorgeous heiress whom he learns may have been involved in the killing."

Well, it could have been the famously reviled 1978 version for how little Vian thought of it. Having already fought with the producers about their interpretation of his work and asking to have his name removed, he could stand it no longer during a French screening of the completed film. A few minutes in he allegedly blurted out "These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!" He then collapsed from a massive coronary and died on the way to the hospital.

If that's not putting yourself into your art, I don't know what is.

Something tells me Vian would have looked more favorably on Mood Indigo ... though he probably wouldn't have lived to see it anyway, as he'd be 94.

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