The Science of Sleep
, , ,
105 min.
Release Date
The Science of Sleep

Akin to how its manic main character Stéphane handles reality, Michel Gonry’s new film keeps its audience on a separate plane. With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry used quirky characters afflicted with a defect (progressing memory loss) to enhance their romantic desperation. With The Science of Sleep, the quirky main character, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), sometimes confuses dreams with reality; this defect wholly represents the character, who never fights his daydreaming and thus is totally lost. As a result, so is Gondry’s audience. But that’s not the only reason Gondry loses us.

Stéphane arrives in France from Mexico on word from his mother, who has promised him a hearty job doing graphic design for a calendar company. But his mother lied and the job is a simple office position, which just happens to be for constructing calendar type. Understandably upset, Stéphane is adamant to leave the job and return to Mexico. Easily distracted from any goal, he forgets about going home when he meets his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

Stéphane confuses reality with his dreams—surreal (of course) settings constructed of cardboard, cellophane, and other material (one imagines all this material was found at the French version of Michael’s, which incidentally, would be Michel’s). Sometimes Stéphane can’t tell if what happens in his dreams, be they daydreams or dreams when he’s sleeping, is real. Sometimes Stéphane actually does the things he’s dreaming about while he’s sleeping, completely unaware the events took place in reality. Yet throughout consciousness or not, Stéphane behaves as though he creates reality, skewing fundamental rules of physics and social nicety so that they fit his distorted view.

Gondry, who wrote and directed this film, plays out the dream imagery with what looks like stop-motion animation. Dolls, toys, paper cars, and homemade worlds come to life and move about the screen in a way strikingly familiar, as Gondry has clearly spent time analyzing how we see dreams and optical illusions in our day-to-day reality. With a background in music videos, as well as two major feature films (Eternal Sunshine… and Human Nature), the director is comfortable with worlds that have existed only in our minds, with translating dreams into a filmable medium. The dream imagery is the best part of this film; the reality of it is the problem.

Bernal, the versatile actor from Babel and Y tu mamá también, adorns Stéphane with eccentricities that never fail to make every social, work, and romantic situation awkward, if not unbearable for the others involved (the viewer included). Besides his creativity, I found nothing likable about the character, though I recognized the possibility of there being an interesting character in him somewhere. Stéphane is that friend we all have—the one with a bizarre personality and sense of humor, of which no one really “gets” until they take the month or two it takes to get to know he or she. In movies, this common character supplies an oddball supporting role, but fails to achieve necessary stature in a lead role, particularly because it is impossible, within the length of a feature film, to know such a character. Unfortunately, along with Stéphane, every character in The Science of Sleep has the same idiosyncratic faults.

Warner Independent Pictures purchased the film at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and likely saw an imaginative piece comparable to Gondry’s previous work. While it does have an imagination crammed to the throat like a pâté goose, the film made me wonder when it was all over, what was the point? Gondry, who I imagine is not unlike Stéphane, while creative, is almost too creative for his own good. He concentrates overtly on compelling visuals, but forgets that without a compelling narrative, he loses the audience. Even though there is a seemingly happy ending attached, is Stéphane really capable of anything beyond his frenzied dream-laden lifestyle? Gondry never shows us another side to his character, so we don’t know if Stéphane is capable of making Stéphanie happy, or what relevance his dreams have, if any. By the end, Stéphane doesn’t grow. He’s the same dreamer he was when the film started.

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