To sleep, to dream but here’s the rub“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” introduced the world to Michel Gondry’s ability to launch his audience into a world of dreams, each more surreal that the next, while Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script deftly knits these tangents into a coherent, meaningful whole.
Gondry’s self-penned new “The Science of Sleep” is not the timeless movie “Spotless Mind” was, but it’s still a delightful journey and a bittersweet meditation on the psychology of the artist.
Unfortunately, watching the movie as a foreigner here is an exercise in squinting at Korean subtitles and straining to remember high school language class, since almost half the dialogue is in French. On the other hand, Gondry is such a visually creative filmmaker it hardly makes a difference.
Gael Bernal plays Stephane, a half-Mexican, half-French socially inept graphic artist who moves to Paris at his mother’s behest and ends up working for a calendar printer. Stephane uses his dreams to work out frustrations, to provide inspiration and to fulfill fantasies. The problem is, he has difficulty telling dreams from reality. He sleepwalks and sometimes continues to act as though in a dream when awake.
When a new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), moves in, Stephane quickly finds himself infatuated. Their mostly one-sided love affair is a mixture of old-fashioned slapstick (breaking into her apartment to plant a present, sleepwalking naked in the hallway, a piano falling down the stairs) and the dreams inside Stephane’s mind, a stop motion-animated environment made of toilet rolls, stray pieces of cardboard and varieties of repurposed garbage. This world is cutely dubbed “Stephane TV.”
This is clearly a personal story for Gondry ― just as he uses stop motion inside Stephane’s brain, so Stephane makes animated films in his spare time ― but it’s unique among artsy, semiautobiographical romances. Often, this kind of story ends up either too happy or sad to be true: repulsively cloying depictions of a fantasy world their creator doesn’t have the power to make reality, or tiresome whining about fate.
In “The Science of Sleep” Gondry avoids extremes and ironically ends up with a more realistic film. “Science” draws a clear line between the anarchistic freedom of dreams and the simple disappointment of domestic, urban reality.
The relationship between his two leads perfectly encapsulates the problems that dreamers have when they fall in love with good, but more socially normal, people.
Stephane ascribes interpretations and meanings left and right to things that appear unremarkable to Stephanie. A typical example: Stephanie finds out a key piece of information in a letter Stephane writes and delivers in his sleep. Meanwhile, believing she had never read the letter, Stephane is excited that the two have a telepathic connection he refers to as “parallel synchronized randomness.”
Gondry’s romantic little film is like a slightly more grown-up “Calvin and Hobbes,” where one-second time machines really work and it’s possible to ride off into the sunset on a stuffed horse ― but certain overwhelming realities are still inescapable.
by Ben Applegate