Dream Works 

Michel Gondry’s fantastical The Science of Sleep is a bit on the style-over-substance side, but that’s precisely where the fun lies

The Science of Sleep
Dir. and writ. Michel Gondry; feat. Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou, Emma de Caunes, Aurélia Petit (R)
Those of us who swooned over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — easily the best film released hereabouts in 2004, and one of the decade’s most exciting so far — have eagerly awaited Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep, the first feature wholly written by the director himself. Starring Gael García Bernal, who is dreamy (in both the Teen Beat sense and in the way that he always seems to have more going on inside his head than most other actors), it seems a predestined arthouse hit. If the result doesn’t inspire cries of “Masterpiece!” as the credits roll, it is definitely the work of a still-young filmmaker worth watching.

Bernal plays a young artist (Stéphane) who, after his father’s death, returns to Paris from a long stay in Mexico. Unsettled and introverted, he agrees to move back only to take a job, which turns out to be quite unlike what he was promised: He’d expected to be an art director, but is stuck pasting chunks of type onto cheap promotional calendars.

Stéphane isn’t a sex-starved lothario, as is his new coworker Guy (an entertainingly boisterous performance by Alain Chabat), but he quickly develops shy attractions to two neighbors, the conventionally sexy Zoe and her mousy, artsy friend Stéphanie — the latter played by the daughter of French musical icon Serge Gainsbourg. (Can you guess, from their names, which girl is Stéphane’s soulmate?)

This thin plot is just an anchor, though, for a series of fakeouts and fanciful flights in which Gondry explores the cogs and wheels inside Stéphane’s head. A guy who has trouble differentiating between dreams and “reality,” Stéphane sometimes views the world from a tiny, literal control center inside his skull, with his genuine self steering the shell of his body through social interactions. Determining whether what he views through the portholes of his eyes is real or imagined, though, is tricky.

It would take a few pages to explain the ins and outs of Sleep’s dream architecture, and it would be beside the point anyway: Whimsical shifts pull us into the film, and decoding their literal meanings is half the fun. The other half — well, the split is probably more like 30/70 — comes from the outrageous Gondrian visual inventions that pop up in this dreamworld.

While the essential truth of the plot can be pieced together by attentive viewers, it doesn’t approach the poetic eloquence and everything-in-its-place beauty of Eternal Sunshine. Where the earlier film’s head-trip started off bewilderingly and gradually made perfect sense, this one leans in the other direction, suggesting that Gondry wasn’t quite ready to break free from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. His desire to do that is understandable — when you direct such an acclaimed movie, you don’t want to share the credit with some too-big-for-his-britches screenwriter — but Gondry might take solace in the example set for him by other pairings (Scorsese and Paul Schrader, for example) whose collaborations often outshine their solo work.

Or, he could just keep making movies by himself. We’ll keep watching them, whether we can follow the thread or get lost in the funhouse.

More by John DeFore

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