Mood Surreal: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des Jours
by Julia Fine

PHOTO COURTESY OF WEARETHEFRONTIER.COM

PHOTO COURTESY OF WEARETHEFRONTIER.COM

Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (either Froth on the Daydream or Foam of the Daze in English, depending on your translation) has been called unfilmable, but on July 25th Michel Gondry’s recent cinematic adaptation will open at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N State St. (Take note: friends of Literary Chicago can get a discounted ticket by using the code “LIT.”)

Despite its reputation, this adaptation actually marks the novel’s third appearance on the silver screen. In 1968, French director Charles Belmont released a version called L’Écume des jour, and a Japanese adaptation by director Gô Rijû, called Chloe, came out in 2001. This time around, Gondry is using the English title Mood Indigo—a textual deviation, but a fitting name for a whimsical story that plays across the page like jazz music.

The novel’s plot is fairly simple: Colin, a wealthy bachelor, spends his days and his fortune on such fancies as the ‘pianocktail’ (a piano that, you guessed it, makes different cocktails depending on the song that’s being played), hanging with his friend Chick, an acolyte of the prolific “Jean-Sol Partre,” and feasting on the gourmet concoctions of his personal chef, Nicolas. As all wealthy bachelors versed in Jane Austen must, Colin embarks on a search for love that lands him Chloe, his dream girl. The crux of their trouble begins soon after their marriage, when Chloe comes down with an unusual illness: a water lily growing in her lung. The remainder of the novel shows us Colin’s downward spiral as he tries to care for Chloe, his fortune evaporates, and his world slowly narrows (quite literally— his house shrinks).

Throughout the 200-page romp-turned-tragedy, Vian bombards his readers with fabulous, surreal events and images. Mice speak and wear fancy clothes, broken windows grow back, and rifles are incubated by human bodies as they take root like potatoes in the ground. This proliferation of creative ideas has earned L’Écume the title of cult classic, but also its “unfilmable” status. An example of how Vian might be hard to represent on screen: early in the novel, Nicolas prepares a cake for Colin and Chick. They cut it open, and, says Vian, inside there is “a new article from Partre for Chick and a date with Chloe for Colin.” Tough to capture that on film, no matter what your special effects budget might be.

At first, like many of the book’s bizarre events, I found this bakery development delightful. But as I continued reading, I quickly realized this scenario is all too representative of Chloe’s character, or rather her lack of character development. Chloe’s entire purpose is to be first perfect, and then sick, hastening Colin’s demise and spending his money. Sure, her sickness is exciting—she has a flower growing inside of her and must be surrounded by flowers at all times in order to survive. (But also sometimes she kills flowers by breathing on them…? What makes this novel more Jorge Luis Borges than George R. R. Martin is the discernible lack of rules that govern the magic of its world). Still, her sickness is her character entirely. Chloe is cardboard, purely here to service her husband and the plot, to be the dying woman teaching her reformed man-child how to love. In Gondry’s film, Chloe is played by the incomparable Audrey Tautou, who from the previews seems to embody her with slightly more punch. It remains to be seen whether Gondry takes advantage of Tautou’s natural charisma and lets Chloe be more than a trope, but novel-Chloe left me rather disappointed.

Also disappointing from a feminist perspective was this late-in-book exchange between Colin and Chick’s former lover, Alise:

‘Why did he throw me out?’ said Alise. I was really very pretty.

I don’t know why, said Colin, but I really like your hair and face.

Look, said Alise. She stood up, pulled the little ring that closed her dress and it fell onto the floor. It was a light wool dress; underneath, she was wearing nothing.

Yikes. We certainly won’t be using Vian as an example of how to write compelling, opposite-sex characters. In fact, the shallowness of his women takes the whole novel down more just a notch in my esteem. I’ll admit that some of this might stem from translation: Brian Harper did a fabulous job with my copy (Foam of the Daze), but even in his introduction explains that it is often impossible to convert all the nuances of Vian’s wordplay into English. Harper’s edition provides extended notations at the end of the full text to clue us Yankees in on some of the original cleverness, but can not mask the sense that we are losing something by not reading the book in French. Perhaps in its original language these ladies make more of an effort to hold their own? I hope so.

If this review has taken a harsher turn, it should not dissuade you from picking up the novel — the imagery alone is enough to entice curious readers. I am incredibly excited to see how Vian’s visions play out on the big screen: roofs falling in on academic conference-goers, lovers traveling by cloud, a machine called the heartsnatcher. Gondry is known for his fanciful style (see Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, or one of his many music videos), and seems like just the director to take us on a frothy, foamy journey through this richly imagined world.

Join me at The Siskel Center July 25-31 to see how it all turns out, and remember to use “LIT” to get your discount!

Related:

Mood Indigo

Gene Siskel Film Center | 164 N State St | 312-846-2800 | Starts Friday, July 25, 2014

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