Froth on the daydream

May 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

L'Ecume des jours (dir. Michel Gondry, 2013)

L’Ecume des jours (dir. Michel Gondry, 2013)

Boris Vian holds the dubious and bizarre distinction of being the only writer ever to have been killed by a bad adaptation of one of his books. Okay, a heart attack was what actually killed him, but it was brought on by seeing the film version of his novel I Spit on Your Grave, whose production he had never authorised in the first place. (His last words, before he collapsed in the cinema, were supposedly ‘These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!’)

Vian’s masterpiece (and my favourite of his novels) is L’Ecume des jours, and unlike the pulpy, violent I Spit on Your Grave, it seems as if it should be unfilmable. Fantastical and absurd, it’s peppered with surreal wordplay (one of the most memorable examples being the pianocktail, a modified piano that produces cocktails based on whatever jazz tune you care to play – just don’t play anything too ‘hot’ or it will cook the whipped egg white and you’ll end up with bits of omelette in your drink) that often stumps the translator. (The title itself is a case in point – a literal translation would be The Foam of the Days but various English translators have come up with Foam of the Daze, Froth on the Daydream and even – in homage to Duke Ellington, whose music plays a central role in the book – Mood Indigo.) A film was made in the 1968, after Vian was safely dead (I haven’t seen it, but judging from the stills it looks not only dire, but terribly late 60s, not at all in the 1950s/sci-fi spirit of the book), an opera in 1981 and another film adaptation, this time in Japanese, in 2001. But that was it… until last year, when I heard that yet another film adaptation was in the works. I was worried until I found out that it was being directed by Michel Gondry, and then I was ecstatic. If any director was ever born to bring L’Ecume de jours to the screen, it’s Gondry.

L'Ecume des jours: Colin (Romain Duris), Chloe (Audrey Tautou), Nicolas (Omar Sy)

L’Ecume des jours: Colin (Romain Duris), Chloe (Audrey Tautou), Nicolas (Omar Sy)

The whimsicality and the handmade sensibility that Gondry brought to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep isn’t exactly the same as Vian’s cockeyed and occasionally macabre worldview, but it’s a beautiful match. Gondry’s adaptation succeeds not because he’s slavishly faithful to the letter of his material, but because he’s true to its spirit. The cast is a perfect example. Colin, the hero, a young man of independent means who spends his days in idle pursuits like inventing the above-mentioned pianocktail and hanging out with his philosophy-obsessed friend Chick, is described by Vian as a blond matinee-idol type (with hair like apricot jam combed through with a fork!). Nobody would ever mistake Romain Duris, dark and joli-laid, for a matinee idol, but then there’s probably no other French actor of his generation who can do comedy and tragedy with equal flair – essential for Colin, whose carefree life begins to disintegrate when his beloved Chloe falls ill with a water lily in her lung. Audrey Tautou brings exactly the right sweet fragility to Chloe, but I found her a bit sparkier than the original in the novel (a change of which I thoroughly approve). And Omar Sy as Nicolas, the imperturbable Jeeves to Colin’s Wooster, while not whom I would have imagined in the role (to be fair, that’s only because I hadn’t seen any of his previous films), was pitch-perfect.

Unlike the previous adaptation, Gondry remains faithful to the book’s twisted 1950s aesthetic, while at the same time cleverly suggesting that the story takes place in some sort of time bubble in the present: Colin and Chloe’s first date takes place partly at the recently demolished Forum des Halles, with all the passersby in contemporary dress, and when, later in the film, Nicolas begins to age rapidly as a side effect of the shrinking and decay of Colin and Chloe’s flat (which contracts as her illness worsens), his horrified niece waves his passport at him saying ‘it says you’re 47!’ and his birth date is shown as 1965. Equally vital is Gondry’s DIY approach. There’s scarcely any CGI wizardry. Nicolas’s eye-popping culinary creations are obviously crafted from fabric and cotton wool and animated by hand; the sequence where the frost flower that develops into the deadly water lily invades Chloe’s lungs plays out in a heart and lungs constructed from velvet and satin. In contrast with this obvious, wonky handcraft is the subtlety of the cinematography. Gondry starts with a bright, sundrenched palette; as the film begins to slide inexorably into tragedy the colours gradually drain away until our last glimpse of Colin in the cemetery after Chloe’s funeral in black and white and smudgy, tear-blurred greys.

Well, maybe some of the blurriness was down to me. There are very few occasions I’ve ever come out of a film with tears in my eyes and an ear-to-ear grin, but this is one of them. L’Ecume des jours, the film, is every bit the masterpiece that L’Ecume des jours, the novel, is.

I’d like to think that Boris Vian, wherever he is, is smiling.

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