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Burning Questions: Is Michel Gondry Lost In The Clouds? 

Kate Winslet with Michel Gondry filming Eternal Sunshine Michael C. here back with the return of Burning Questions, the weekly column where I answer all the most pressing film issues of the day, and, more importantly, address whatever is rattling through my head at any given moment. It’s a pretty sweet gig. First up is a growing concern I've been nursing for one of our best filmmakers.

If I hadn’t known the Mood Indigo trailer was for the new Michel Gondry film I might have wondered if it was an incredibly skillful satire. Like those spoofs that show films directed in the deadpan style of Wes Anderson it plays like an exaggerated showcase of all the director’s idiosyncrasies. The tone of melancholic whimsy. The frequent detours into magic realism. The loving devotion to the handmade over the slick and polished. The presence of Audrey Tatou in particular seems specifically engineered to provoke a chorus of cooler-than-thou Internet smart-asses to point fingers and shout “Twee!” “Twee!”

Twee, clouded?

I hold Gondry in high esteem and unashamedly enjoy all the quirks listed above, but at some point you have to ask: Is Gondry ever going to come back down to Earth?  Currently Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sits in the middle of Gondry’s filmography as a glorious anomaly... [more]

...A miraculous fluke where one of the all-time great screenplays found its way into the hands of a director perfectly suited to bring its fantastic conceit to life without losing track of the sad, wise love story at its core. Gondry’s subsequent films have had the same wealth of imagination, but lacking the strong spine of Kaufman’s text, it all tends to float off into the ether. I fondly recall Science of Sleep’s “one second time machine” and Be Kind Rewind’s no-budget movie recreations but they exists in my memory as stand-alone curios, independent of their films. (I will politely ignore Green Hornet. Even the greatest of filmmakers land a full-on bellyflop now and then.)

The fact that Mood Indigo is based on a French novel by Boris Vian inspires optimism that Gondry has once again married his world-class imagination to a structure strong enough to support it. The fact that the novel’s plot is summarized as “A man marries a woman who must be constantly surrounded by flowers to survive” makes me worry that the material was chosen for its handiness as a clothesline for the director’s trademark flights of fancy.

yes no maybe so?

I understand that you can spend years waiting for a script like Eternal Sunshine to land in your lap. And it's not that I don't enjoy visiting the director's dream world - Indigo's underwater wedding looks worth the price of admission alone. It’s simply that Gondry has shown that he’s at his best when applying his brilliance to a story grounded in stark, down-to-Earth reality underneath all the stardust. It would be a shame if he never approached that greatness again because he was floating too high above it all.


You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm. Or read his blog Serious Film.

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Reader Comments (9)

At first glance the original novel, L'écume des jours, does seem like a perfect fit for Gondry. I don't particularly love it, but it's totally unique, and not so easily summarized as that. And as one of the most famous and popular French novels, I'm a little surprised it took so long for someone to tackle a high-profile adaptation (I had no idea, but apparently there is a little-regarded 1968 movie version). But yeah, I share your concerns that the material may be a little *too* much up Gondry's alley.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

Speaking of auteurs we love... did you know that the first trailer (other than the teaser) for Almodovar's 'I'm so excited' just came out, Nathaniel?!

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

I've had this same concern but he's so talented and I have a higher tolerance for the fantastical and the twee than most people so I am still excited for this.

I kind of wish Charlie Kauffman hadn't become a director though. I think they were such an ideal pairing as writer/director

January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was totally charmed by that trailer in a way that I wasn't by the one for "Science of Sleep", and despite my complete boredom with "Ho Hey", so I am willing to reserve judgment. I do agree with Nathaniel, though, that he and Kaufman were such a great pairing that I wish they would only work together always. But when Gondry's on his game, it's magical, and it looks like that's the direction this one is heading in.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Michael, you do know Michel Gondry has a story credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, right (and even won an Oscar along with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth)? It's likely something they developed together, Kaufman wrote the screenplay and Gondry directed it. It's not that the script fell into his lap, he helped develop it (I don't know what the process was like in developing the story, I'm just saying it doesn't seem it was something that fell into his lap). I agree with Nat though, he and Charlie Kaufman should work together again, because they are stronger together. In fact, Kaufman is always stronger when he has a director to ground him (he also made a terrific team with Spike Jonze on Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). As for Gondry, I actually really enjoyed Be Kind Rewind and thought The Science of Sleep had some very worthy moments (loved Charlotte Gainsbourg in it). Mood Indigo looks very charming, and like Nat, I have a higher tolerance for the fantastical, especially with the level of imagination that Gondry brings to it. I'll be on the lookout for this one.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Richter Scale: Thank you for reminding me that Eternal Sunshine won the screenplay Oscar - I had totally forgotten, and it's such a great win!
I didn't have the Oscar pulse back then the way I do now. Was that a predictable win? Or was it an upset? (It was up against Aviator, after all.)

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

It was the expected winner, though I think we were all pretty nervous about it. As you said, it was up against The Aviator (the nomination leader that year), and there was talk of Mike Leigh being a possible upset for Vera Drake, but Eternal Sunshine won the WGA for Best Original Screenplay and so many other critics awards. It also Golden Globe and Critics Choice nomination for Best Screenplay (both went to Sideways, which won Adapted Screenplay that year). The lack of a Best Picture nomination and the fact that its only other nomination was Best Actress made some of us nervous, but it was the expected winner of the evening and one time where an upset would have really made me upset (I know a lot of people wish for those, but sometimes the expected winner is so deserving, you just want it to win)....

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Richter Scale -

I am aware that Gondy has a story credit on Eternal Sunshine and shared in the Oscar win. I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. When I said that it can be ages waiting for a screenplay like Sunshine to fall in your lap I simply meant that such quality scripts are rare and that I wasn't naive enough to expect all his films to have such strong writing.

It is, however, my understanding that while the story idea credit was shared, the bulk of the heavy lifting screenwriting wise was done by Kaufman. And since Sunshine it's clear that without such a strong writer to ground him he flies off in all directions. He certainly creates some fantastic images as he does so, but it all has no weight to it, and as a result it disappates quickly from memory.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Well, then maybe what Gondry needs to do is come up with the ideas and then find a writer to help him ground the ideas and give them some weight like Kaufman did. Also, I don't thin we should underestimate the influence Gondry had on the script, because I don't think any of Kaufman's other scripts are as moving and poignant as this one (they're brilliant in other ways, but that's the thing that for me elevates Eternal Sunshine, and maybe that's Gondry's influence). I feel Kaufman also needs a second voice to ground him and that's why they work so well together. They complement each other with their voices. I also thought Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep were, if nothing else, incredibly moving.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

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