Thursday, August 28, 2014

L'Écume des jours

I'm a huge fan of music videos from MTV during the 1990s. It's almost as developed as my passion for cinema. Maybe more. Who knows? Some of my biggest influences and today's most accomplished directors came up from these ranks: David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, and Anton Corbijn are the Big Five.

Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are the most visually inventive in the category of surreal fantasy invention interspersed with whimsical, childlike, spontaneous mazes of optical illusion and explore the world of dreams and memory existentially.

Gondry is more romantic and Jonze tragic. But both struggle to maintain the dramatic gravitas of their first two films after Kaufman. Coincidentally both directors first and second films were written by the then emerging talent, Charlie Kaufman.

Jonze on his own seems to prefer a surreal setting to launch a slow brooding tragic love story. Michel Gondry on his own seems to prefer a surreal madhouse where audiences are baffled and awed by intricate illustrations of places that can only exist in an expressionist exaggeration of his own mind.

Gondry has done some studio work that has resembled traditional movies more than his early inspired original music videos (Gondry invented bullet time a year before The Matrix in a Smirnoff commercial). His first two films were mainly Kaufman and he found ways to throw in his own genius of craftsmanship; but, La Science des rêves (2006, Gondry) was entirely his, from beginning to end, and looked like it could be any one of his surreal masterpiece music videos: Cibo Matto's "Sugar Water," Björk's "Bachelorette," The Foo Fighters' "Everlong," or Radiohead's "Knives Out."

La Science des rêves had an odd tone though. The romance was awkward and the point of the narrative often confusing. But maybe that's okay because it is a fish-out-of-water tale that takes place in someone's dreams. That would be Gondry's last optical illusion featue he shot on film. HD agrees with him as proved by his latest feature...

L'Écume des jours (2013, Gondry) satisfies my desire for more Gondryworld. It, like La Science des rêves, was promoted with a trailer showing off all of the sight gags. That film didn't have much that wasn't in the trailer, but L'Écume des jours unbelievably holds up to its promise and floods the screen with mayhem.

And this works because the spine is so simple it's as if it was conceived by an infant: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loses girl. To ape an expression I think I heard someone else mutter in the theatre after the film ended: "it's like a happy love story that's really sad." COLIN is the boy and CHLOÉ (Audrey Tautou) is the girl. Because of Tautou, comparisons with Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) will be inevitable, but it does seem obvious that one potential shortcoming of L'Écume des jours is that it isn't really a love story like the kind Amélie is and clearly succeeds as.

This is interesting. Gondry is French and I'd rather get a chance to experience the delights of his imagination even though audiences might be put off or just not into it. I'm saying movies are hard to make and I love L'Écume des jours.

The opening of the film features a barrage of images, but distinctly (1.) a house with an anthropomorphic mouse (I bet Gondry watched "Beakman's World"), NICOLAS, who is Colin's butler (?),  Colin's friend CHICK, an animated eel named ROCKY who lives in the faucets in the sinks (and soon an animated plate of sushi as lunch in another scene), a bathtub where as Colin bathes he drills a hole through the floor and pink liquid irrigates a plant downstairs that sets off a chain reaction of flowers growing in the downstairs neighbors' house; and (2), a Sixties-looking lecture hall-seating type room with rows of people typing on an assembly line of typewriters that stop briefly before moving on to the next recipient--I think this room is fate because they all type into a book that's called L'Écume des jours. And this first few minutes all to Duke Ellington's "Take the "A" Train."

In the first act Colin wears white leather doc Marten hipster shoes and a slim-cut gray suit that makes him look a lot like Peewee Herman, or maybe I just think that because his house feels so much like Peewee's Playhouse. Peewee, Gondry, and Gondry's male protagonist are all manchild/arrested development hipster types. The first act is swarming with Gondryworld's foundation: stop motion animation (CELLOPHANE!!!), intentionally shoddy looking projection, distortion of scale and space perspectives, and dancing with exaggerated weird rubber legs. And there's a lot of handshaking that is this effect where both parties hands rotate at the cuffs simultaneously (is that a joke, "rotator cuffs?").

I wish I had more time to go into the pianocktail, but umm, it's a piano device that makes drinks based on notes and it's a really great prop gag. Oh man and there's this cake that's construction is animated and when Colin saws into it, it's pink insulation with a section cut out for a bottle of perfume and a telegram that he has a date.

Colin quickly meets and falls in love with Chloé and their ice-breaking is typical Gondry with the guy trying to say something sexual to be charming but it's just awkward. In this instance, I think it's something like: "it would feel better if it was with hands down there." The dream couple get in a swan vehicle that is suspended from a crane that cruises them through the city. They wind up at Les Halles, which is a big construction site that's really toys shot and projected--Gondry loves construction sites. They have an amazing underwater wedding and later a honeymoon picnic with "mixed weather," where half of the screen and scenes are raining while simultaneously the other half remains bright and sunny.

Such a small detail as a photo with "6 months later," inscribed on the back, depicting the happy couple, is next on a wall and it's six months later. I want more of this stuff in movies damnit!

The couple reside in a traincar lodged in between two buildings, high up in the air. There're bunkbeds inside. This is the typical Gondryworld domicile.

The rest of the film follows Chloé's diagnosis and treatment of a terminal illness resulting from a snowflake that flew into her lungs and a 3' water lilly that grew in her right lung. Holy crap that sequence is magnificent. The inside of Chloé's chest is like straight out of Björk's "Human Behaviour," video that Gondry directed. It's all construction paper, cotton and handmade looking.

And while all of this is beautiful, we haven't invested in these characters like Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw or anything like that. It still feels like a music video. But that's Gondry. Chloé even says early in the film, when she first meets Colin and he asks how can she like him, he's hardly spoken a word when she replies, "It's okay, I love blanks." Maybe blanks are more fun, or at least not excluded from a working model of movie storytelling.

The second half grows more despondent and dark. Right around the time Colin refuses to murder a bunny at work, Chick's girlfriend ALISE (Nicolas's daughter) then murders the author of the books Chick reads out of passion. Then Chick is murdered. That's a quick tonal shift.

We get a melancholy black and white epilogue mourning everything Colin has lost and the mouse delivers a flip book, drawn by hand, depicting the moment Colin and Chloé fell in love. That's all I needed to say this works.

I have a minor discrepancy with Drafthouse Films releasing a 94 minute version of L'Écume des jours, released as Mood Indigo and that being the only version available here in the states. I like shorter movies and maybe this thing needed half an hour cut from it, but I'd still like to see the original. Oh well...

Definitely one of the coolest creations of fun art I've ever seen. Love it.

--Dregs

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