Michel Gondry’s “Mad World”

New York Times

When every other music video is an all-singing, all-dancing, all-exploding extravaganza, a provocateur might want to go negative. Absence. Quiet. Slowness. Space. These are the grabbers Michel Gondry employs in “Mad World,” his arresting, poetic video for the similarly paradigm-defying hit about isolation and suicidal imaginings by the Los Angeles folk singer Gary Jules.

The video begins with a disorienting shot down a building’s façade to the sidewalk below. When a schoolbell drills from inside, the front doors open and black shapes of children spill out onto the gray sidewalk. As the falling notes of a solo piano nudge out recess sounds, the children begin a strange sidewalk diversion: assembling into pictorial formations — a face, a stick figure, a dog and others — with the apparent spontaneity of a hopscotch game. The camera periodically pulls back to show us a lone figure, Mr. Jules, watching the shapes from their only legible vantage point, the rooftop. He sings in a high, plaintive voice, “All around me are familiar faces/ Worn-out places/ Worn out faces.” And that, with some minor variations, is the video.

Mr. Gondry’s music shorts, like those of Spike Jonze, have developed a cult following in recent years for their childlike whimsy and inventiveness. In works like the stop-animation Lego fantasia for the White Stripes’ “Been in Love With a Girl,” he developed a style of low-tech surrealism, spurning the latest digital effects for homespun tricks like oversize props, scrim-projected double-images and painstaking animation. These relatively archaic techniques actually fool the eye more than today’s overused video illusions (which we now read as simply “computer effects”) and create a more genuinely dreamlike environment. Mr. Gondry gave this style a melancholy cast in his recent feature film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” depicting a hero who, thanks to a fantastic medical procedure (and characteristically Gondrian conceit), becomes literally stuck in his own memories, wandering from one lost moment to another.

The “Mad World” video plays similar games with memory, including the memory of pop consciousness. The song was a 1982 hit by the British band Tears for Fears, which Mr. Jules recast as a hushed nocturne for the soundtrack to the 2002 movie “Donnie Darko.” That film — an 80’s period piece about a brooding 10th-grade visionary — used carefully chosen songs to create its romantic world of paranormal adolescence. Mr. Jules’s “Mad World” plays at its apocalyptic denouement and continues through the credits. As “Donnie Darko” became a word-of-mouth hit, so did “Mad World”: in December it was the No. 1 song on the British pop charts.

Because of that mainstream success, “Mad World” has now been retasked as the single for Mr. Jules’s folky album “Trading Snakeoil for Wolf Tickets” (which he distributed from his bedroom in 2002, before it was rereleased to take advantage of the song’s popularity). It bears the odd distinction of being a soundtrack tune whose video contains no references to the movie (which Mr. Gondry did not direct). Yet this short offers something sadder and wiser than either the film or original song did.

In tone, it’s almost the exact opposite of Mr. Gondry’s previous, more fanciful videos. It is wintry and barren, with imagery as stark as Mr. Jules’s voice-and-piano ballad. Watching the children play from the roof, the bundled, newsboy-capped figure of Mr. Jules is a distant, marginalized character in his own video — a spectator, a filter for the action. As if on the far, hallucinatory ledge of clinical depression, he sees patterns, dour significance, tragedy in even youthful games. The bodies form into a rippling flag, then a sailboat on a waving sea. He is a 35-year-old man, singing a 22-year-old song, as he watches schoolchildren render simple pictures, sending him sweet, friendly semaphores from an unbridgeable distance.

Whether the children are performing for him or for themselves, their circle is closed. Mr. Jules can only watch, cut off and adrift on the far side of adulthood. “I find it hard to tell you/ I find it hard to take,” goes the chorus. “When people run in circles/ It’s a very, very/ Mad world.”

As Mr. Jules continues watching the sidewalk ring-around-the-rosie, our gaze follows a quartet of departing youngsters up the sidewalk, then continues panning across the desolate cityscape. It’s doubtful MTV will play a lovelier or more haunting argument against growing up.