Michel Gondry's "Mood Indigo" resembles a genius' workshop filled with old-fashioned toys. There are no glistening computer-generated effects here; as in most of his films, the evidence of Gondry's wildly inventive visual imagination gives us quirky hand-made objects that seem to have lives of their own. In "Mood Indigo" these toys include the pianocktail, a piano that automatically mixes and dispenses cocktails according to what music is played. And there's the ride that the hero, Colin, takes on his first date with his true love, Chloe -- an amusement park style ride that seems to exist only for them, a car shaped like a cloud hanging from a crane that swoops them over Paris, their legs dangling in the air.
The film is based on Boris Vian's 1947 novel, "L'ecume des jours" (better known in France than it is here, where the clunky standard translation is "Froth on the Daydream"). You can see why the novel, complete with pianocktail, appealed to Gondry, who transformed it into this dazzling fantasy world where a romance plays out. Gondry updates the story to an unspecified time that comes closest to the 1970's, a period of typewriters and vinyl records, although his LP's magically split into four smaller discs before our eyes. Colin (Romain Duris), who wears trim suits, is financially comfortable and looking for love. Nicolas (a droll Omar Sy), is his chef, lawyer and friend, He is also the matchmaker who introduces him to Chloe (Audrey Tautou) at a party where people dance the biglemoi, in which the dancers' legs grow to twice their length and become as rubbery as those of cartoon characters.
In this nostalgic fairy tale, Chloe's ponytail hints at Audrey Hepburn romping through Europe, and the romance is fueled by jazz, beginning with "Take the A Train" over the film's opening. ("Only two things really matter," Vian wrote in the foreword to his book. "There's love ... and there's the music of Duke Ellington.") In a wry subplot, Colin's friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) is obsessed with the philosopher Jean Sol-Partre, a dead-on lookalike and thinkalike of Jean-Paul Sartre and another joke from Vian, Sartre's friend in real life.
A more somber tone emerges when Chloe becomes ill and is mistreated by Dr. Mangemanche (played by Gondry himself, uncredited). Soon, a lethal water lily is growing in her lung. As she becomes more seriously ill, darkness literally encroaches on the film. Cobwebs creep across her bedroom window (we see them grow), and the film's colors gradually fade until the ending is black and white. Those final black-and-white scenes (the cinematographer is Christophe Beaucarne) look glorious, but there's a problem: this confection of a film can't sustain the weight of its emotional turn.
Too often, even the main characters have seemed like props in a series of set pieces, as they do when Colin and Chloe take part in a go-cart race up the steps of a church to see which couple will win a contest to be married. Gondry's best film is still the brilliant "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and "Mood Indigo," despite the Vian source, lacks the spine that Charlie Kaufman's screenplay gave "Eternal Sunshine." With a screenplay by Gondry and Luc Bossi, "Mood Indigo" lets the whimsy so overwhelm the characters that there is no emotional resonance to draw on when the film needs it.
"Mood Indigo" is more like Gondry's inventive music videos than any of his films, although "The Science of Sleep" comes closest in its fantasy and visual indulgence. In the end that hardly matters; scene for scene Gondry's playful filmmaking sparkles and mesmerizes enough to carry us through.