As a fan of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, which played at the Siskel Center a few weeks back in the 94-minute version that Gondry prepared for international release, I recently purchased a copy of the 131-minute version that played last year in France and Hong Kong. (The all-region Blu-ray available in Hong Kong—which, unlike the French edition, comes with English subtitles—runs for about $25 on Amazon.) In terms of plot, the longer cut isn’t that different from the version that screened here. The events proceed in more or less the same order, and the story still switches from comic to tragic around the halfway point. Gondry and editor Tariq Anwar removed 37 minutes by cutting little bits here and there, typically minor details that occur at the ends of scenes. Yet the two versions feel markedly different in tone—the longer one is considerably darker, featuring references to death and destruction not even suggested by the international cut. It would seem to refute the common criticism that Gondry’s work is uniformly cute or childlike.
One of the most shocking details not included in the international cut occurs during the first ice-skating sequence. In the version that screened here, the scene concludes with Colin (Romain Duris), the film’s bon vivant hero, proposing to his girlfriend Chloe (Audrey Tatou) after the two hurt themselves on the ice. In the longer version, their skating accident causes a series of accidents, which culminates in a pileup of dead bodies. A dump truck then appears on the ice to cart them all away, much like Omar Sy, playing Colin’s lawyer/chef Nicholas, cartoonishly uses a broom to clear Colin’s breakfast table earlier in the film.
This isn’t the only instance of mass death in the French version. Late in the film, Colin’s philosophy-loving friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) gets distracted at his factory job, and as a result of his negligence, what seems like a dozen men get sucked into a giant machine that mangles them to bits. Both here and at the ice rink, the catastrophe is so unlikely (and the action so exaggerated) that it looks ridiculous—yet it stands in such sharp contrast to the general whimsy that it feels unsettling all the same.
These details help to contextualize the film’s midpoint shift in tone. Both Mood Indigo and the 1946 Boris Vian novel on which its based display the influence of first-generation surrealism—the narrative structure evokes the sweet illogic of dreams, so too do the non sequitur details. (I was surprised to learn that many of the film’s most seemingly Gondry-esque touches, like Colin using an electric drill to drain his bathtub, come directly from the book.) Just as any dream can transform without warning into a nightmare, so too does Mood Indigo. In the longer version of the film, Gondry keeps us on the precipice throughout—in fact, one almost feels relieved in this cut when Chloe is diagnosed with a terminal illness, since this development steers the tone decisively once and for all.
The most direct precedent for Gondry’s film might be David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which responds with comparable imagination to the challenge of adapting an unfilmable novel. Both are highly personal works that filter the author’s biography and literary style through the director’s unique aesthetic. Mood Indigo is as much about Vian’s Parisian adventures of the 1930s as it is about Gondry’s nostalgia for a time and place that he didn’t experience directly. The film ostensibly takes place in the present, yet it’s a present constantly in danger of being engulfed by the past—the Duke Ellington songs on the soundtrack, the outmoded technology, and even the factory where Chick works evoke the 30s. (It’s worth noting that Vian was Ellington’s French liaison when the latter came to Paris in 1939.) Yet Gondry’s postmodern sensibility defamiliarizes these elements and reminds us of our distance from them. One of the biggest hurdles separating the present from 1930s France is, of course, the Second World War, which rendered most prewar European culture either foreboding or naive. The piles of corpses that litter the 131-minute cut of Mood Indigo might be described as a literal illustration of that hurdle.