REVIEW: “Mood Indigo”

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Filmmaker Michel Gondry has had his hands in all sorts of projects. He’s made music videos, short films, documentaries, and even television commercials. He has also made a handful of feature films of which I have seen two – the visually striking and potent “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the painfully unwatchable “The Green Hornet”. His most recent film “Mood Indigo” falls somewhere in between the two.

I was really excited for “Mood Indigo” not so much because of Gondry but because of its cast which features some of France’s most recognized performers. Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, and Omar Sy bring a huge spark to this strange romance fantasy, but they can only do so much. Gondry goes all-in creating his surreal Dali-esque dreamworld. He bombards us with it and within the narrow bounds of a two hour movie it’s just too much.

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The film is based on “Froth on the Daydream”, a 1947 novel by Boris Vian. It tells the story of a wealthy and happy man named Colin (Duris). He loves his life. He loves the food and company of his cook Nicolas (Sy). He has a wonderful and trustworthy best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh). Gondry shows us Colin’s life through a wild assortment of off-the-wall but playful imagery and gadgetry. This is important because it is truly intended to be a visual representation of Colin’s state of mind. The visuals grow more whimsical and colorful when he meets and falls in love with ChloĂ© (Tautou). The two hit it off and in no time are married.

Colin and ChloĂ©’s relationship drive the remainder of the film both visually and narratively. The two are madly in love and Gondry visualizes it in a number of vibrantly wacky and bizarre ways. But that changes when ChloĂ© is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Not only does the story take on a more depressing tone, by the visuals go from bright and playful to dreary and bleak. It’s a direct reflection of Colin’s mood and state of mind as his life literally decays right before our eyes. It’s a fascinating stylistic approach that shows Gondry’s insanely cool creative side.

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At the same time it is Gondry’s wild surreal world that is the movie’s biggest flaw. While the craziness does a great job of interpreting feelings it also goes overboard and becomes an annoyance. Gondry never pulls back and he sometimes smothers his story with his relentless imagery. Quite frankly some of it made no sense and came across as indulgent. I appreciate the film telling a good story in a very unorthodox way, but I often found myself distracted from the main story and at times uninterested in what Gondry was doing. Too much is too much.

Gondry’s stylistic excesses hurt the film but they don’t hurt the performances. Duris and Tautou have always been able to act with charisma and charm and it’s no different here. Both gracefully move from jaunty and merry to downcast and broken. But I had the most fun watching Omar Sy. He may be the most unique character in the film and Sy gives one of the best supporting performances of 2014. These three are joys to watch and they are the film’s most appealing components. As with the moving and poignant story, their performances sometimes get overshadowed by Gondry’s relentless visual wackiness. That’s unfortunate because ultimately that is what keeps “Mood Indigo” from being as good as it could have been.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Big Picture”

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In the recent French film “The Big Picture” Romain Duris plays a man who seems to have the perfect life. He’s a successful lawyer practicing in one Paris’ most prestigious law firms. He has a pretty wife and two adorable young children. He’s financially set, has a nice home, and can even afford the most modern equipment for his side passion – photography. Looking at his life you would have to wonder how it could get any better. In “The Big Picture” co-writer and director Eric Lartigau shows us that the perfect life can easily be misleading and the doors that open to a new life can appear unexpectedly.

Duris’ plays Paul Exben and we quickly begin to notice blemishes in his seemingly spotless life. He finds out that his boss and dear family friend is terminally ill and wants him to take over the law firm. Even worse his burned out writer wife Sarah (Marina FoĂŻs) feels smothered by motherhood and she begins to distance herself from Paul and their children. He soon suspects her of having an affair with a jerky photographer named GrĂ©goire (Eric Ruf). Confrontations and eventual violence follows which forces Paul into an unexpected but potentially better new direction. But there are always consequences and Paul finds that the struggle between new life and old can be unbearable.

Duris is a fantastic actor who has shown a wide range throughout his career. Here he gives an emotional but measured performance. His ability to stay within the bounds of director Lartigau’s vision is phenomenal. Lartigau wants us no know the pain and inner conflict Paul is feeling but he never overplays it. Instead of throwing out contrived scenarios to draw out emotion he allows us to step back and watch Paul – to observe his emptiness and solemnity. Duris does the rest, often telling us his character’s feelings through his melancholy eyes or scraggly appearance. Its a brilliant performance that’s essential for making the film work as a whole.

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There’s a lot more I’d like to talk about but I won’t in order to avoid spoiling it but let’s just say the movie ends at a very different place than it starts. The film is loosely adapted from the 1997 Douglas Kennedy novel that was set in suburban Connecticut. Here things are moved overseas and the story goes from Paris, France to Montenegro. But the book’s main focus is still intact. It’s still about a struggling man trying to put a proper identity to his life. The French title for the film, “L’Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie”, better captures that. It’s translated “The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life”. But the real drama is found in the conflict.

Paul is given that rare opportunity at a new life. But he’s not a scoundrel. He knows there are consequences and dangers to this new life. There is a cloud of uncertainty and nervousness that hovers over him. There are responsibilities and needs connected to his old life. Paul wrestles with all of this and for me that’s when “The Big Picture” is the most fascinating. Even though things seem to look up and a new page is turned, Paul remains burdened by reality which keeps him from moving on. I’m trying to be very cryptic here and dance around the greater story. But these intriguing themes are the lifeblood of this movie.

“The Big Picture” dabbles is several genres. At different times it feels like a domestic drama, a crime story, or an intense thriller. Lartigau beautifully weaves all of this together and he keeps us glued to the screen with his crisp and fluid pacing. Everything moves and flows nicely right up to the final 10 minutes. The movie takes a jarring turn in what comes across as an abrupt and contrived conclusion. There is still a message to glean from the final moments, but considering how well connected the narrative had been up to that point, the ending did feel strangely out of place. But it doesn’t completely undo the story that “The Big Picture” is telling. It remains a stirring and thought-provoking picture driven by a brilliant performance from Romain Duris. It asks more questions than it answers and allows the audience to wrestle with the rights and wrongs. I like that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“Heartbreaker” – 4 STARS

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I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy. Call me a softy but I really respond to them. Unfortunately the genre is in shambles as studios continue to pump out one lame, brainless rom-com after another. Maybe that’s why I get so excited when I actually find one worthwhile. Maybe that’s why I almost instantly rewatch it, knowing it may be a while before I get another good one. Such was the case with the 2010 French film “Heartbreaker”.

Okay, let me get this out of the way first. “Heartbreaker” is at times incredibly silly and like many romantic comedies it’s completely predictable. But that did little to quench my enjoyment of the film. For the most part “Heartbreaker” is smart even in its silliness and director Pascal Chaumeil wisely keeps the pace up, never allowing us to mull over the absurdity of some of the things we’re seeing. And then, by the end of the movie, I realized what a great time I had with the film and even that absurdity played its own little role in my enjoyment.

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The story goes like this, Alex (Romain Duris) runs a unique business that breaks up relationships. He works with his sister Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and her dimwitted but tech-savvy husband Marc (François Damiens) to create elaborate ruses that persuade women to break off their relationships. But the team has their own honor code. Alex never takes a job involving a perfectly matched couple and he never breaks up a happy relationship. Alex plays the handsome swooner of the operation. Melanie play the well disguised ground operative. Marc handles everything technical. We learn all about their operation in the film’s amusing opening. Alex wraps up a successful job with a series of over-the-top lines that sets the smitten target woman free and left me laughing at his scripted sappiness.

Alex is approached by a rich father with ties to organized crime who wants his daughter’s engagement to an Englishman ended. The wedding is in a few days and the couple seems happy, but Alex, knee-deep in debt with a loan shark, puts his rules aside and takes the job. The crew heads to Morocco where Alex meets the daughter Juliette (Vanessa Paradis) and poses as a bodyguard hired by her father. Juliette is a spunky and independent young woman and Alex finds out that the job is going to be more difficult than anticipated. As the wedding gets closer, Alex begins to run out of options. On top of that, things are made more difficult by the fact that he’s falling for her. Bet you didn’t see that one coming!

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The story is clever and the laughs are aplenty, but I thought the biggest treat was the cast. I had seen Romain Duris in a handful of other movies but never in a role quite like this. He is very funny and he wonderfully channels that good-looking arrogance and occasional knuckleheaded cluelessness. Vanessa Paradis continues to impress me with every performance of hers I see. She’s really good here playing it straight while the others around her have the fun. But she has her own funny moments that pulls some good laughs from the audience. Paradis and Duris have an odd but convincing chemistry and that’s a key ingredient to making this such an enjoyable experience. If you doubt me, just wait until you see the “Dirty Dancing” scene. I’ll just leave it at that.

As I mentioned there is a lot of predictability along the way and there’s nothing that will catch you by surprise. But the filmmakers and the cast know this and they never try to sell you anything else. It’s a rare romantic comedy that caused me to laugh a lot and to genuinely care about the characters. I’ve rewatched “Heartbreaker” a couple of times now to see how it holds up. It’s still funny. It’s still entertaining. It still leaves me extremely satisfied despite its few flaws. Now I hear that there is a US remake in the works. There’s no need in that. I would much rather this film get a bigger audience. It certainly deserves one.