The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry's beguiling new film, is so profoundly idiosyncratic, and so confident in its oddity, that any attempt to describe it is bound to be misleading. While points of comparison are available — to Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry's collaborations with Charlie Kaufman; to early Surrealist artworks or the later films of Luis Bunuel — they don't do much to illuminate the puzzling, mostly delightful experience of watching The Science of Sleep unfold.
So it may be best to tack in the opposite direction, with a description that is no less accurate for seeming completely illogical. What I'm trying to say is that The Science of Sleep, for all its blithe disregard of the laws of physics, film grammar and narrative coherence, strikes me as perfectly realistic, as authentic a slice of life as I've encountered on screen in quite some time.
Some immediate qualification is called for, since the life that Gondry explores, in a spirit at once rigorous and playful, is the inner life of an eccentric, somewhat troubled fellow. Filmed in not-especially-glamorous parts of Paris, the film takes place in a zone where dreams, wishes and fears mingle with, and at times obliterate, the literal facts of everyday existence.
Beginning deep inside the head of its hero, an anxious young man named Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), The Science of Sleep creates a world of intense peculiarity, where time seems to move in loops and curlicues, and where the basic axiom that a thing and its opposite can't both be true seems not to apply.
Plot summary, therefore, is both irrelevant and impossible. Which is not to say that the movie lacks a story, only that, like a dream, the narrative moves sideways as well as forward, revising and contradicting itself as it goes along. Gondry, who would rather invent than explain, makes a plausible case that a love story (which is what The Science of Sleep is) cannot really be told any other way. Love is too bound up with memories, fantasies, projections and misperceptions to conform to a conventional, linear structure.
Arriving in Paris from Mexico to stay with his mother (Miou-Miou), Stephane stumbles into a stop-and-go romance with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a skittish neighbor. Actually, what happens is that her piano falls on him, a bit of cartoon slapstick that Gondry stages with insouciant matter-of-factness. Stephane's eye is first caught by Stephanie's friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes), who is more conventionally pretty but lacks Stephanie's charming strangeness. Still, the initial confusion over the two women is not so easily dispelled, and even before it begins, Stephanie and Stephane's relationship is shadowed by doubt, jealousy and confusion.
Bernal and Gainsbourg resemble a pair of fine-boned, exotic birds, exchanging tentative mating calls in their differently accented English (his tinged with Spanish, hers an eerily perfect echo of her mother, the British actress Jane Birkin).
Their awkward flirtation is also an artistic collaboration. Stephane, an aspiring illustrator (whose mother has found him a job working for a calendar company), also tinkers with improbable gadgets, like a one-second time machine made from a rewired old toy. For her part, Stephanie fashions dioramas out of felt and old stuffed animals.
And Gondry, who sharpened his eye making commercials and music videos, is a kindred spirit. He forgoes computerized special effects in favor of stop-motion animation and papier-mache, finding magical possibilities in homely materials and ordinary situations. Stephane's job, for instance, is a familiar nightmare of daily drudgery with annoying colleagues (including the spectacularly obnoxious Guy, played by Alain Chabat), but also a source of perpetual surprise and, for the audience, comic enchantment.
Gondry's debt to Surrealism lies in his embrace of the notion that the unconscious is a kingdom governed by its own perverse logic, beyond the control of reason. His vision of the unconscious, however, is remarkably benign. The dream world of The Science of Sleep is not haunted by primal sexual terror or constructed for purposes of social criticism, the way Bunuel's landscapes were. It has, instead, a wide-eyed, picture-book quality, an air of almost aggressive innocence.
After a while, the spell wears off. Not because the film's inventiveness wanes, but because its mood changes, slowly but noticeably, from eager enthrallment to desperation. The gray of daylight seeps in around the edges, and Stephane's dreams become less an escape from the frustrations of ordinary life than another potential source of disappointment. His childlike behavior, especially around Stephanie, begins to seem intemperate and regressive, a petulant refusal to wake up into the rational, adult world.
And so you leave this buoyant, impish movie feeling a little blue: sorry that it had to end and also wishing, perhaps, that it amounted to more. But its fugitive, ephemeral quality is part of its point: dreams, after all, are hard to remember, and perhaps don't hold the meanings they seem to. Without them, though, our minds would be emptier and our lives much smaller. So while The Science of Sleep may not, in the end, be terribly deep, it is undoubtedly — and deeply — refreshing.
Directed By: Michel GondryStarring: Gael Garcia Bernal (Stephane), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Stephanie), Alain Chabat (Guy), Miou-miou (Christine Miroux), Emma de Caunes (Zoe)Running Time: 106 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
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