The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves)
Director : Michel Gondry
Screenplay : Michel Gondry
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Gael García Bernal (Stéphane), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Stéphanie), Alain Chabat (Guy), Miou-Miou (Christine Miroux), Emma de Caunes (Zoé), Aurélia Petit (Martine), Sacha Bourdo (Serge), Pierre Vaneck (Mr. Pouchet), Stéphane Metzger (Sylvain), Decourt Moyen (Gérard), Inigo Lezzi (Mr. Persinnet), Yvette Petit (Ivana)
In The Science of Sleep, writer/director Michel Gondry has fashioned something sublime and charming--a child’s eye love of make-believe trumping the ugliness of reality. His fashionably unfashionable film, which deploys cardboard sets and amusingly awkward stop-motion animation with a rare kind of innocent glee, whimsically skirts along the boundary between fantasy and reality, with dreams becoming the ultimate escape, a place of both safety and reflection where one’s ego can be nursed and healed from the drudgeries of day-to-day existence.
Gondry’s hero and obvious autobiographical stand-in is Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), a dreamy young would-be artist who moves to Paris from Mexico when his mother promises him a place to live and a job that will allow him to utilize his creativity. The job, as it turns out, is a hack assignment cutting and pasting on cheap calendars in an office environment that could be generously called hostile.
There is a bright spot in his life, though: his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whom Stéphane falls for after realizing that Stéphanie’s prettier and more extroverted friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes) won’t give him the time of day. He sees that Stéphanie is much closer to his own soul, sharing his love of creativity and eventually entering his dreamworld, where he can express himself in ways that the rules of concrete physical existence deny him.
Gondry’s main conceit and his primary risk in The Science of Sleep is the character of Stéphane, who constantly challenges our identification and sympathies with his often blunt-edged narcissism. Few characters are this appealing and this distasteful at the same time. Stéphane’s (and, by proxy, Gondry’s) childlike wonderment at the power of dreams and his inability to function comfortably in the real world frequently border on the childish, and when it crosses over fully, the film risks becoming insufferable.
Yet, Gondry manages to keep his balance for most of the film, deriving humor and pathos from Stéphane’s difficulties with his waking life. Stéphane is frequently the butt of jokes, whether it be his mean-spirited co-workers laughing behind his back as he enthusiastically shows his new boss his portfolio of oddball disaster art or Stéphanie and Zoé getting a kick out of watching him pathetically attempt to maintain the illusion that he doesn’t, in fact, live right across the hall. These scenes make Stéphane achingly vulnerable, which goes a long way toward tipping the sympathy scales when he acts boorish and insensitive.
Inside Stéphane’s dreamy head, Gondry spins a world of fantasy that is built from the ground-up like a preschooler’s art project, glued together from cardboard and tinfoil and plastic wrap with a complete lack of pretension. It’s beautiful not because it’s perfect or seamless, but because it bears the stamp of having been created. In some scenes, Stéphane is the host of his own personal television program (the background logo “Stéphane TV” is a bit too obvious), the set for which is composed entirely of cardboard boxes and egg crates. Two windows become the backside of his eyes, where he can look out on the world from within his dreamscape. At other moments, he can fly or watch his bitter boss turn into an even more bitter street derelict.
In one of the film’s most moving moments, Stéphane and Stéphanie stand inside his dream watching a replay of a moment in their lives when she treated him badly at a party, and she asks with all sincerity whether he is mad at her because of it. The scene is poignant precisely because it allows for a moment of self-consciousness that doesn’t exist in real life; we can remember our moments together, but not relive them (wouldn’t it be nice if we could, though?). Much like the scene in Gondry’s exceptionally moving sophomore film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), when Kate Winslet tells Jim Carrey that these are their last moments together inside his memory and soon it will all be gone, this scene suggests the wonderful and awful power of being able to step outside your life and observe its details without losing the emotional attachment.
For Gondry, who got his start directing innovative music videos for artists like The Chemical Brothers and Björk, The Science of Sleep is his proclamation of independence from head-trip screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who penned the scripts for his first two features (2001’s Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine). Even though Gondry certainly displays a Kaufman-esque appreciation for the mixing of fantasy and reality and the joys of literally living inside a character’s head, The Science of Sleep is very much his own flight of fancy.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Warner Independent Pictures