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L’Écume des jours

August 1, 2014
L'écume des jours

I am not ready to give up on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” concept just yet. Critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term, evidently is, citing what he calls overuse without really exploring any further. I don’t disagree that the term can be overused, but I think that MPDGs are still a heavily-used trope. And we can find evidence for both of these claims in Michel Gondry’s L’écume des jours, subtitled in English as Mood Indigo.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to lay out the definition of the term here, just to be clear: a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a female character, frequently described as an extroverted personality and given “unusual” or particular habits or interests, or is presented in a context that also prizes other “unusual” features or viewpoints, who exists solely in order to support a male narrator, almost exclusively introverted and usually down on himself despite a wide array of privileges. There’s some fuzziness in “unusual”, since that has to be measured against the surrounding culture, but it’s pretty easy to recognize when you see it.

The film adapts Boris Vian’s surrealist novel, previously translated as Froth on the Daydream and — maybe more idiomatically — Foam on the Daze. Colin (Romain Duris) is independently wealthy, enjoying the gourmet meals prepared by his manservent, Nicolas (Omar Sy), and the company of his friend, Chick (Gad Elmaleh) over drinks prepared by his invention, the “pianocktail”. Chick is recently in love with Alise (Aïssa Maïga), and Colin demands to be in love as well. Nicolas teaches him “le biglemoi”, a bizarre dance craze, and they go to a party where Colin meets Chloé (Audrey Tautou). Love comes quickly, and then marriage, but their happiness is dashed when Chloé becomes ill. Her rare and painful condition — a water lily on the lung — can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers, and Colin risks his entire fortune to save her.

Vian rivals Lewis Carroll in his nonsense, and Gondry’s staging is as fanciful as anyone could hope for. This is hardly the first time Tautou has appeared in such imaginative surroundings, of course; she’s surely most popular — in America at least — as Amélie. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is every bit as whimsical and visually inventive as Gondry, so does that mean that Amélie Poulain is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? She certainly qualifies on unusual or particular tastes, and is presented amidst other unusual characters. But the important thing that makes a character an MPDG is how she is used: Amélie is herself the only real lead, and she has her own emotional arc through the story. If anything, Nino is her Manic Pixie Dream Guy.

We can again visit Tautou’s back catalogue to find La Délicatesse. Tautou’s character, Nathalie, isn’t exactly pixieish this time, but she does serve as a foil for the schlubby Markus. And yet it’s important that this is not her only role; Nathalie has her own arc, starting with François and ending pointed at Markus. Even if the Foenkinos had directed their film as zanily as Gondry does his, she would not qualify.

There is real reason to criticize some claims that a character is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, then. The term is overused when the accuser focuses only on the Manic/Pixie aspects — the unusual personality quirks and habits. In this case, “MPDG” does serve a misogynistic role, prescribing “normal” female traits and rendering unusual ones somehow pathological. Amélie sending her father’s garden gnome on a trip around the world is unusual, and Chloé’s outgoing, experimental personality that draws Colin from his shell both fit the description, but in neither case does this make the character an MPDG, and slapping the label on any female character with an ounce of texture is hugely problematic.

But Chloé is one nonetheless. It has nothing to do with her tastes or behavior, and everything to do with the fact that she has no separate existence from Colin. She serves only to push and pull him through his own journey, even giving up her life to develop his character. The Manic/Pixie terms she’s rendered in are just how Vian happened to structure this purely functional mannequin of a female character. Even Chick gets his own side-story in his obsession with the writings of “Jean-Sol Partre” in pharmaceutical form.

Such living-furniture characters are everywhere in our stories. Many of them are mistaken for the “female lead”, though they’re hardly all MPDGs. So why not retire the term? because so many sad-sack, introverted male authors — as brilliantly lampooned by Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks — write sad-sack, introverted, self-insert leads that they then pair up with the outgoing, “quirky” girl they believe they deserve, as a sort of wish-fulfillment.

There’s no problem at all with Manic/Pixie stories; L’écume des jours is infectiously giddy and some of the most visual fun I’ve had in a theater this year. But there is a problem when a story like this — or any other — treats its main female character so reductively as an object for the male lead to bounce off of.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass, but just barely.

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