On Boris Vian: The Mind Behind Michel Gondry's 'Mood Indigo'

Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou in Mood Indigo/Photo © Brio Films

On Friday, July 18, American audiences will get a peek at the latest work from Michel Gondry, the Oscar-winning French filmmaker whose terminal whimsy animated "Human Nature," "The Science of Sleep," and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." A tale of fantastical romance, "Mood Indigo" is based on the 1947 novel L'Ecume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream) written by a French author named Boris Vian, whose work remains mostly unknown outside of France. Vian is the perfect match for Gondry's obsession with the romantic and the fanciful: an engineer and jazz musician, poet and actor, playwright and translator, songwriter and Sartre confidant, Vian comes off like a character created by Gondry's most simpatico collaborator, Charlie Kaufman.

Born in 1920, Vian began publishing fiction in the 1940s, both under his own name and under the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan, which he used for sardonic crime novels such as The Dead All Have the Same Skin and I Spit on Your Graves (great titles!). The latter landed him in legal trouble while his more literary efforts -- Autumn in Peking (1947), The Red Grass (1950) -- could only have dreamed of that kind of attention. Froth on the Daydream concerns a pair of young lovers whose honeymoon takes a rough turn when the woman falls ill with a rare disorder: She has a waterlily growing in her lung and must be surrounded by flowers to stay alive. Murder, poverty, and death ensue. It's easy to see the story's appeal for Gondry, who naturally expands on the quirky elements of the love story and downplays the tragic misery and cynicism. (He cast the professionally adorable Audrey "Amelie" Tautou in the lead role of Chloe, which signposts his desired tone pretty clearly.)

While Vian has had several of his novels and short stories adapted over the years (Froth on the Daydream has been turned into a film twice already), his impact on the jazz scene is arguably more profound. He wrote many articles on the subject, deejayed a radio show and acted as ambassador for some of the American greats who came to Paris (Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie), helping to popularize the music in his home country. Sadly, Vian developed serious health issues in his thirties and suffered several personal blows: his good friend Sartre, who appears as a character in Froth, purportedly wrecked Vian's marriage, and the 1959 film version of I Spit on Your Graves literally killed him. Apparently Vian, who had already demanded that his name be removed, suffered cardiac arrest part way into the first screening of the film. Which, come to think of it, is precisely the kind of ending Gondry and Kaufman would have written for his life.