Michel Gondry gained early recognition as an innovative music video director. His most well known clip, for a White Stripes tune, was animated using Legos. After making the jump to the big screen with Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the latter two written by Charlie Kaufman), Gondry draws upon his early style for The Science of Sleep, an intentionally impenetrable romantic fantasy.
Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel) plays Stephane, a young man who works a dead end job, has a somewhat strained relationship with his mother, and drifts back and forth between a waking state and a dreamland. In his dreams, he sits in a television studio watching his life broadcast on a small TV and through a few windows. It is here that he can control his own destiny, whether it’s the desire to write a best-selling book or engage in wild sexual liaisons with coworkers.
Across the hall lives a woman named Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She too is something of a dreamer, although perhaps a little more realistic than her similarly-named male counterpart. They don’t really like each other all that much (he is, in fact, attracted to her best friend), yet their fantasies undeniably intersect. A romance threatens to blossom, but Stephane appears incapable of discerning what it real and what isn’t, when he’s awake and when he’s dreaming. This makes him less-than-ideal boyfriend material.
The greatest strength of The Science of Sleep is also its greatest weakness. The movie contains wondrous fantasy images, such as an animated city made completely of cardboard. (Stephane’s TV studio is also made of cardboard, with “cameras” made of boxes.) Later, there’s a sequence in which he dreams of a place where everything is made of felt, including a galloping horse. Other imaginative dreams find Stephane sporting oversized hands, floating in a sea of cellophane water, and literally hanging cotton clouds inside Stephanie’s apartment. From one end to the beginning, the film is visually stunning.
But that’s all. I used the word “impenetrable” at the top of this review, not by coincidence. Gondry penned this film by himself and, without the strong plotting given to him by Charlie Kaufman, he creates an end product that is beautiful but hard to follow and almost impossible to draw deeper meaning from. (On first viewing, at least; multiple viewings may well prove more illuminating thematically.) Without a firm plot in place, Stephane and Stephanie remain enigmas to us, and their relationship is as bland as their dreams are vivid. We’re supposed to buy into the idea that a love story is unwrapping here, yet there doesn’t appear to be an emotional core to their union. All they have in common is dreams. Gondry has proven that he can juggle fantastic visuals with 3-dimensional characters and a solid plot (Eternal Sunshine being an obvious example). This time, he nails part of the formula but fumbles on the rest.
Gael Garcia Bernal compensates for some of this with a performance that can best be described as enthusiastic. The actor really goes for broke, happily giving his all in the story’s weirdest moments. He’s sympathetic too; while the screenplay struggles to clue us in on his romantic frame of mind, Bernal always makes Stephane’s attraction to/repulsion from Stephanie clear. I’ve enjoyed the actor’s work in other films, and he again proves himself to be the kind of performer you’re instantly drawn to in a film.
In fairness, The Science of Sleep is a perfect film for watching on DVD. I’m not sure I would have recommended it in the theater – where you’re paying full ticket price and therefore expect a cohesive experience – but on DVD it’s worth a look. Gondry is a creative and important filmmaker, and for whatever else it lacks, The Science of Sleep deserves to be recognized as a bold, innovative experiment in non-linear storytelling and visual design. That it doesn’t succeed 100% in no way detracts from the pleasure of seeing Gondry take a risk. The film arrives fairly early in the director’s career, and it no doubt serves as a sneak preview of challenging works to come.
The DVD comes with audio commentary from Gondry, Bernal, and Gainsbourg, a making-of documentary, and a featurette about the woman who created some of the props. (Even she admits not completely “getting” the movie.) Oddly, two short documentaries about people who rescue cats don’t seem related to the movie at all, although both are interesting. Gondry is listed as a producer on one; on the other, a woman warbles an ode to cats and praises them for not “pooping on your head.” On second thought, perhaps that makes sense given the appealingly mercurial nature of Gondry’s body of work.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Science of Sleep is rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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