Since he’s been on a roll with the exquisite, heartfelt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I thought was far and away the best film of 2004) and the sunny afternoon jaunt Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which came out earlier this year (I thought less of 2001’s Human Nature), I’ve been very much looking forward to Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. (In fact, I’d say it, The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Children of Men were/are probably my most anticipated movies for the remainder of 2006.) Unfortunately, Sleep, which I caught yesterday morning as the first half of a double-feature, was a film I ended up admiring more than truly enjoying. At its best moments, it (like the much better Eternal Sunshine) is a hallucinatory rumination on love, memory, and obsession that’s at turns whimsical and melancholic. But, like scraps of dream exposed to the morning light, these moments are evanescent and fleeting and, without the narrative thrust of Sunshine driving this movie, Science can feel episodic, hit-or-miss, and at times uncomfortably close to twee.
Like Walter Mitty or Sam Lowry, the shy, imaginative Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) lives mostly in his dreams, where he’s the host, star, and in-house band for the psychedelic sitcom/talkshow/mindmeld Stephane TV. In the Paris of the real world, unfortunately, Stephane’s innate inventiveness is rotting away: He wiles the hours at a painfully mundane typesetting job he got through his mother (Miou-Miou), while fending off the bizarre quirks of his coworkers, most notably the middle-aged prankster Guy (Alain Chabat). But, Stephane’s life takes a momentous turn when a piano falls on him during his morning commute, and he meets his striking new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge and actress Jane Birkin). After some confusion over whether Stephane prefers Stephanie or her cute friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes), Stephane determines it’s the former in spades, and sets out to win her heart, mainly by appealing to their shared creativity. But, is Stephane’s fanciful dreaming a boon or a burden when it comes to wooing Stephanie? As his real and dream lives begin to fold, splinter, overlap, and convolute, it becomes increasingly harder to tell where he stands with her, or, in fact, where he stands at all.
An occasionally captivating, occasionally baffling exercise in the key of dream-minor, The Science of Sleep gets points for thinking outside the box — note the one-second time machine — and for its unique DIY visual marvels: Plush animals come to life, water taps spew forth cellophane, cardboard cars ride to and fro. (Think of Gondry’s Bjork videos.) And I thought its primary conceit — that the significant other in your head, molded from impressions and fragmentary evidence, desires and wishful thinking, resentments and regrets, is so much more often the one you’re grappling with rather than the actual person — is a shrewd and able one, even if that case was also central to Eternal Sunshine. Finally, the film takes several strange and unexpected turns in its final act, which I appreciated for their attempt to complicate the story here. By the end, both Stephanie and particularly Stephane seem significantly less sympathetic characters, but, even amid all the bizarre dreaming, also in many ways more realistic ones.
Still, for all the creativity on display, The Science of Sleep feels slack at times, particularly as the lower-caste demons of Stephane’s office perennially return to haunt him. For better or worse, it is dream logic rather than narrative logic which dictates what’s going on throughout Gondry’s film, which can lead to more than a little meandering throughout. In sum, I found The Science of Sleep an intriguing cinematic exercise and even at times a haunting “love” story, but it had definite pacing problems. I definitely recommend seeing it — it’s miles above your traditional rom-com — but it’s less one for the ages (a la Eternal Sunshine) than it is one feverish, uneasy night amid the Dreaming.