Michel Gondry on Bringing His Deeply Personal ‘Mood Indigo’ to the Screen

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As a filmmaker whose as visually imaginative as he is emotionally-charged, Michel Gondry always stays true to his own artistic mores in whatever form his projects take. From his surreal heartbreaking films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Hollywood titles like The Green Hornet, the French filmmaker has lent his bizarre and wonderful mind to myriad types of cinematic endeavors, and most recently, bringing the pages of Boris Van’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream) to the screen. “I felt like the book was written for me,” said Gondry when we spoke last week, whose adaptation of the novel was an experience very close to his heart. 

Titled Mood Indigo, the film stars Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris as Chloe and Colin, a young couple whose love is thwarted by sickness. After falling ill on their honeymoon, Chloe learns that she has a rare disease caused by a water lily blossoming in her lung, leaving Colin to do everything he must in order to keep his newly beloved alive. And simply from the brief synopsis of the film alone, one can gather what perfectly befitting source material this was for Gondry, who was able to lend his aesthetic sensibility and flair for the adorably surreal to the film—perhaps to an even amplified degree.

So last week, I got on the phone to speak with him about his relationship to Van’s novel, his affinity for romantic nostalgia, and his desire to surprise himself.

What’s so interesting about your work is the difference in the kind of projects you take on. How did you choose to adapt Boris Van’s novel and did you have a personal connection to the story yourself?

For some reason, I felt like the book was written for me. I think everyone that discovered it had this feeling. It was something I could relate deeply with the story and the character and the representation of the world, and I could really relate on a very personal level. And then I was asked to adapt it, so it was like adapting something that was already very close to me.

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How did you go about taking what you loved about the novel and making it your own and incorporating your visual aesthetic into it?

I read all of Boris Van’s books. Before I was a director, I was already sort of an artist, but he was actually very influential to me, and when I started to direct I thought of him. So my universe was sort of inspired by his universe, and when I took on this, I brought many of my ideas but they were already influenced by him. So that was an interesting dynamic. 

Were you concerned with pleasing audiences, considering it’s such a beloved work and people have their own attachment to it already?

Yeah, it was a very big responsibility, but I tried not to think about that too hard. I really wanted to make it to personal and to interact with it. It’s true that it’s scary because the nature of a job like this, but I tried not to take it too hard.

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Were you writing it with certain actors in mind? Romain and Audrey are a terrific pairing.

Well, I knew Romain as a friend, and in fact I was looking for a movie we could do together. I tried to find somebody that would be a good match and we’d worked together several time already. He has a lot of charisma and has a charming way of being weird—it’s not all about masculinity. With Audrey, I really wanted her to play the part and she wanted to work with me as well. What she brought to the character is that, her character in the book is sort of very abstract. But Audrey gave more personality and more strength to her character, that’s why I wanted to work with her. Even if she doesn’t have the biggest part in the film, she has such a presence that she makes it very strong. And I think Chloe has to be strong because even though she’s dying, she’s the one that’s giving energy to everyone else.

With your films, you take ideas grounded in everyday life such as romance and heartbreak, sadness and death and elevate that wold through things like animation and your playfulness with storytelling. Is bringing the real into the surreal something that’s always been important to you as an artist?

Yeah, and with relationships, it’s something I can feel and I know quite well and talk about and express. With Science of Sleep, the lady that Charlotte Gainsbourg was playing, was getting sick. And in this bed, she would make these illustrations. So already I had that in me for making Mood Indigo—that sort of sadness in a relationship. And of course they are very romantic and very nostalgic, so I guess you can see that in my movies.

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And particularly with scenes like the wedding when they’re floating underwater, was that something you envisioned while reading the book and finally were able to actualize?

Yeah, when I read the book I had those images. But say, when they’re getting married and they’re under water, that was inspired by another part of the book when they were reminiscing about the beginning of the relationship and their friends and when everything was great. You could see the memories like fish in the web that you have when the river draws into the ocean, which is what gives the book it’s name —, the Foam of Days. I had this image and thought I could transfer it into the wedding, and when they get married, they are open to anything because they’re under water and they’re just floating in their own world. All of that is connected to feeling. 

Having been so prolific with your work directing music videos, to seems that music always plays an important role in the tone of your films and way you tell a story.

Well, coming from music videos, I always avoid to enforce too much connection, so I generally like to work with a score more than just a collection  of songs.

Going from The We and the I to Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? to Mood Indigo, how do you go about choosing a next project?

Whenever I see my last movie, I think of all the problems the movie has and I think about what I can do differently. I try to explore and to surprise myself and do something new.