Irony alert! French wonder-boy director Michel Gondry is best known for his intricate, almost baroque do-it-yourself Rube Goldberg tricks, as displayed and perfected through a series of groundbreaking pop promo videos, and central to the emotional punch of his stellar second feature Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet, his most accomplished film ever since that Charlie Kaufman-scripted mind-twister was also his least affected, the nearly effects-free teenage piece The We and the I.

     This is notable because few works would be so "up Mr. Gondry's alley" as Boris Vian's late-1940s classic cult novel L'Écume des jours (translated into English alternately as Froth on the Daydream or Foam of the Daze) - an oneiric, absurdist roman à clef written at the height of Parisian post-War existentialism that only became popular after the author's death. Its dream logic and surreal, whimsical touches (such as the "pianocktail", a piano where each key corresponds to an ingredient in a cocktail created through the playing) seem tailor-made for the director, and it's no wonder he responds to it with a tour de force of eccentric, ingenious visuals to tell the ultimately sad tale of Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloé (Audrey Tautou), lovers whose passion and marriage are undone by an incurable disease she contracts during their honeymoon.

     There's no whitewashing the ultimately bleak plot, set in a timeless, dreamy Paris soundtracked by Duke Ellington - if anything, there's black-and-whitewashing as DP Christophe Beaucarne's colour palette becomes progressively more discoloured, ending what began as a pop riot of colour as B&W tragedy. There's no doubt either that Mr. Gondry's prodigious visual imagination, well backed by Stéphane Rozenbaum's intricate production design, makes the film hang together through thick and thin — though it also hinders it, its flights of fancy floating untethered from any narrative logic into a succession of dreamy setpieces loosely threaded according to the arc of a tragic love story. Narrative has seldom been the director's strong suit but the surreal literary conceits of Mr. Vian's novel required a more grounded, more solid structure than Mr. Gondry can supply, the actors trying their best but being mere puppets in his enormous play-set.

     The result breathes, at the same time, an extraordinary creative freedom and a sense that it has been teleported directly from an entirely other timeframe - closer to some of the psychedelic late-1970s cult midnight movies. And that such a defiantly uncommercial enterprise was given a big budget and a star cast is as quixotic as it is remarkable, making L'Écume des jours one of those oddities that try too hard yet can't be dismissed outright. It's got "cult" written all over it, and it stands as a brave but somewhat misguided failure. And it proves, yet again, that the more Mr. Gondry lets himself be carried away by his imagination the less his work resonates as it should.

Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy, Aïssa Maiga, Charlotte le Bon, Sacha Bourdo, Vincent Rottiers, Philippe Torreton, Laurent Lafitte, Alain Chabat
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriters: Mr. Gondry, Luc Bossi, with the collaboration of Carole Fèvre and Nicole Bertolt, from the novel by Boris Vian, Froth on the Daydream
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne (colour, widescreen)
Music: Étienne Charry
Designer: Stéphane Rozenbaum
Costumes: Florence Fontaine
Editor: Marie-Charlotte Moreau
Animations: Valérie Pirson
Visual effects: Arnaud Fouquet, Romain Strabol
Producer: Mr. Bossi (Brio Films, Studiocanal, Scope Pictures, France 2 Cinéma, Hérodiade Films, RTBF and Belgacom in association with Cinémage 6, Cinémage 7, La Banque Postale Image 5, Manon 2, Anton Capital Entertainment and SCA)
France/Belgium/United Kingdom, 2013, 131 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, December 27th 2013


Popular Posts