“People don’t change. Things do.” - Boris Vian, L’Ecume des jours
Paris was a beautiful, physical place when I visited, even when it was raining. When I took pictures, they were in technicolor. The Eiffel Tower was gold at night, luminous. In the mornings, we ate madeleines with butter and jam, and took the subway to Notre Dame or the Galeries Lafayette or wherever we wanted to go in France, just so long as we were going somewhere. We were in our own spectacular film: a sequence of pretty hues and dissolving transitions. It was stunning, surreal.
Much can be said about Paris in cinema. The city is at once the city of lights and the city of love. But I want to talk about Mood Indigo, which is a film that for all purposes, is as stunning and surreal as it is grim and desolate. Because yes, there’s the moment when the gears stop turning and the colors fade to grey, but at one point in time there’s also the part when everything is in blinding, brilliant color.
Adapted from Boris Vian’s original novel Froth on the Daydream, the film (directed by Michel Gondry) makes its purpose clear: to provide a degree of surrealism, but also show that dreams are exactly just that—dreams. In a sense, though, it also centers the dialogue on what it means to have them. At the beginning, we see Colin (Romain Duris), our fairly young and rich protagonist, eating animated food that spins and swirls and moves as if alive. Their legs stretch in a way that doesn’t seem real when they dance the bigeloi, a Duke Ellington-inspired jazz sequence. The stars are bright; everything fits together in one long continuity.
When Colin meets Chloe (played by the wonderful and dream-like Audrey Tautou), life becomes more of a dream. The two ride on a cloud above glimmering Paris, the anthropomorphic resident mouse in Colin’s house is happy, and the suns are as extravagant as they are bright. During their wedding, the two are surrounded by a bubble, seemingly representative of a disassociation with reality.
Then Chloe gets sick, the cause being a water lily growing in her lung. The walls shrink; the film transitions from technicolor to monochromatic to black-and-grey. It’s here that the space takes precedent over the plot—the sickness isn’t just in Chloe, but in the apartment, in the surroundings, in the people themselves. Gondry offers a stunning portrayal of not just poverty, but also a kind of desperation, of longing, when the illusion slips away, and we realize that maybe it was just that after all: a dream.
I think the main question the film raises isn’t whether richness is really richness if it’s an illusion, but if illusion means that our spaces become more unseeing. Maybe the happy veneer is gossamer, as paper-thin as it is unreal. The first time I ever went to Paris, I was surprised at how much it didn’t match up with what I’d perceived it to be. The Japanese call it Pari shōkōgun, or Paris Syndrome, an ephemeral sickness in which individuals experience a heightened version of culture shock when they realize that Paris is not a hallucination—black-and-white city of lights, city of love—but rather a real city with real problems: overcrowding in urban areas, discrimination, poverty.
Mood Indigo is a bit like Gondry’s own version of Paris Syndrome in a way. Maybe we are all living in our little black-and-white films and sitting in our quaint, Parisien cafes. Maybe we will always be residents of the music box, forever spinning around in our own little universes. While we’re fixated on the way the sun sets behind the Eiffel Tower, there are mini gold versions of them being thrust into our faces. Yes, they’re only one euro each, but they can never measure up to what has begun to take shape in our minds.
And that’s what the film does: its characters and story take shape in the color, and separates in the lack of it. And maybe that’s okay. It was only at night that the Eiffel Tower was gold and luminous. Cities are what you make of them, after all. They can be stunning and surreal, but also grim and desolate.
But my rose-colored glasses were nice, even when it took some time getting them off. It wasn’t so bad living in a dream, even if it wasn’t real. Dreams exist, and in the fleeting parts of them, we begin to exist too.
VALERIE WU is a Chinese-American writer and activist currently attending Presentation High School in San Jose, California. She is deeply passionate about the intersection of ethnicity, migration, and human rights, and was the recipient of a National Gold Medal in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for her personal essay on race in America. Her journalism has been featured by The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times Insider, and We Are Three Dimensional, and she serves as an International Goodwill Ambassador for Postcards for Peace, a UK-based charity aiming to raise awareness of global social issues. Find her on Twitter @valerie_wu.