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Dream Weaver: Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep”

Dream Weaver: Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

Michel Gondry‘s “The Science of Sleep” should have been the restorative after an unspectacular summer for movies — a year, actually. One could put their blood into the profession if movies such as “Superman Returns,” “Talladega Nights,” or “Little Miss Sunshine” were abysmal or brilliant, extreme in either direction; it’s the current state of pervasive mediocrity that has made recent criticism so burdensome. A Gondry film has normally been a destination date for its dogged innovation and sui generis worldview; it pained me, then, to see that while it has craft in spades and a smattering of quietly charming moments, Gondry’s latest is ragged and overfull — an undeniably singular, personal statement that paradoxically lacks any manner of focus or bearing, a mundane endeavour from one of contemporary cinema’s most febrile and astonishing minds.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a graphic design artist who returns to the Paris apartment of his childhood following the death of his father. His mother, absent from most of the film, secures him a job at a boutique calendar printing company. Stephane arrives under the assumption that he’s being employed for his painting and drawing abilities but is instead co-opted into more mundane administrative tasks. His personal life fares no better: he’s perpetually turning down offers from his foulmouthed co-worker, who wants to pimp out the only woman in the office for a quick darkroom fuck, and he secretly yearns for the affections of Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives in the apartment directly opposite and shares his predilections for whimsy and caprice but has a maddeningly indeterminate and mercurial reaction to his bumbling advances. Stephane escapes from his mundane daily existence by retreating to a lo-fi dream world rendered in pasteboard, stop-motion, and psychedelic video art. As the star of “Stephane TV,” he runs amok in his cardboard-box studio, musing bizarrely about the nature of reality, dreams, and his own stalled love life. Fantasy bleeds into life as Stephane makes physical reality malleable: we soar over Paris, and low-slung apartments, and even the occasional postcard monument, curl and bow like idols worshipping a supplicant; a shoebox-sized time machine held together by tape and string can send someone through time, but only in five-second increments.

“The Science of Sleep” is thus as haphazard as Stephane’s visions, jumping abruptly from hallucination-dream-fantasy to reality and back again like a squirrel with ADD, and with a certain lack of internal logic. Gondry loads the spring of his narrative as though a windup toy and then lets it go with no idea where the thing will go. Yet at the same time, the director seems to be working overtime at trying to be quirky. In one random-association vignette after another, the film grabs you by the lapels and screams “I am organic! I am heartfelt! I am unforced and pure!”

As with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Gondry’s feature-length zenith to date, “The Science of Sleep” tweaks the basic form of the romance genre, because it’s not manifestly obvious that the couple will finally be coupled. Because if Stephane is childlike for his imagination and ingenuousness, he’s also childlike in the pejorative sense, with a nasty petulance that surfaces whenever Stephanie spurns him. His apparent logic is that if the physical world is plastic and subject to his whim, then why not people and their emotions? The way the character is constructed throws the film into a conundrum, because even though we’re supposed to be aligned with Stephane’s addled mind and dogged alterity, he’s fairly disgusting to behold. There’s no inherent attachment built into his character–put another way, the man is creepy-weird, not adorable-weird. Even more disconcerting is that Gondry admits Stephane is proxy for himself (he lived in the same cramped Paris apartment building, worked the same dead-end job at a calendar company); it’s an audacious move to have oneself so represented, warts and all. And Garcia Bernal manages to draw out the intricacy and claustrophobia of a man who is opaquely bound up inside his own mind with supple delicacy and grace.

“The Science of Sleep” is the first time Gondry has used his own screenplay as source material for a fiction. (“Human Nature” and the sweet, subtly breathtaking “Eternal Sunshine” were both penned by Charlie Kaufman.) The rationale, Gondry says, was that he didn’t “want to have to question [his] ideas on an intellectual level.” But if “The Science of Sleep” is any harbinger of future films, he’s a director whose esoteric edge and feverishly imaginative mind needs a humanizing presence to tame the unfiltered effluent. Just as Wes Anderson needed Owen Wilson to bring some warmth and sincerity to his material — “The Life Aquatic“‘s sterilely schematic quirkiness arising from the one Anderson film that Wilson did not co-author–Gondry perhaps needs Charlie Kaufman to bring his ethereal personality back down to earth.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

A scene from Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.” Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

Take 2
by Kristi Mitsuda

With “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Michel Gondry crafted a near-instant classic, a high-concept but emotion-driven formulation of love and regret to which seemingly everyone, on some level, could relate. That zap of universal recognition doesn’t occur with his latest creation; more preoccupied with the specificity of its idiosyncrasies where its predecessor encourages general applicability, “The Science of Sleep” takes on a deeply private slant–watching it unfold, you at times feel as if you’re invading the director’s personal space. Perhaps this is why it takes a slightly longer stewing period to fully appreciate its brilliance, and longer still to realize that it may even surpass the former in unique loveliness.

It’d be easy to fall back on knee-jerk words like “whimsical” or even — yes, that most despised of indie film descriptors — “quirky” in discussing the movie, but to do so would be to mistake as superficial what is a far more beguiling, bone-deep weirdness at work in this delirious manifestation of the filmmaker’s mental playground. Marking his first time out as both writer and director, “The Science of Sleep” sees Gondry sticking hard and fast to his sensibilities, and also reaching a bit further to tease out the latent aura of could-be creepiness that tends to hang just around the edges of his endeavors.

When Stephane (an achingly vulnerable Bernal) first meets Stephanie (and here Charlotte Gainsbourg’s unusual beauty, which encompasses opposing properties–the ethereal and down-to-earth, the graceful and gawky–finds wonderful utilization) we could be forgiven our underestimation that what follows will simply be a tale of two fanciful individuals, misunderstood by the outside world, meeting and making their ways towards one another. Gondry allows us this suspension, acknowledging the playfulness of romantic relationships (and suggesting that really, what love comes down to is finding someone with whom you can let your freak flag fly). The familiar cuddliness of the distinctive handmade sets and props–all visible stitches and buttons — serves to highlight the regression to childhood which mate — building inspires, even as it compounds the slow realization that Stephane’s initially appealing childlike nature more closely borders on a disturbing infantilism; his kookiness can’t merely be absorbed into the adorable in the way of most eccentric lead characters. Complicating its accessible romanticism by interlacing idyllic dreams with a flawed and discomfiting reality, “The Science of Sleep” feels strangely the more soul-stirring.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

A scene from Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.” Image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.

Take 3
By Elbert Ventura

Hipster manifesto and monument to Melies, Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” approaches greatness precisely when the magic wears off. For much of its running time, this twee fantasia exhilarates with its uncomplicated vision of arrested development as a state of grace. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), the displaced dreamer at its center, is depicted as the ne plus ultra of cosmopolitan whimsy, a maladjusted flake whose dedication to art and avoidance of the real world are celebrated uncritically. Meanwhile, the dowdy but divine Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is set up as the lonesome Stephane’s soul mate, a kindred spirit who sees the world through the same kaleidoscopic lens. Taking place in a multilingual, pluralistic Paris–a setting that underscores the breakdown of borders in Stephane’s head–“The Science of Sleep” is an awesome showcase for its director’s untethered imagination. From the cardboard-constructed TV studio in Stephane’s dreams to a stop-motion vision of a yarn-and-cloth ski resort, Gondry’s film is a riot of bricolage and retro-hip gadgetry that pays tribute to the naif sensibility and the eureka moment.

If that sounds like it could be exhausting, it is. And the pleasant surprise is that Gondry knows it too. As the movie proceeds, the flagging whir of an overactive imagination begins to be heard more distinctly. The whimsy that seemed fetching at first glance is revealed as something more troubling. Positing that a river of pathology runs beneath its hero’s beautiful-freak surface, “The Science of Sleep” suggests that male neurosis and insecurity come from the same fount from which vibrant art springs. Confronted with the reality of love — indeed, the fulfilment of his dreams — Stephane recoils and retreats to the safety of sleep. Read this way, “The Science of Sleep” becomes more than just a dazzling display of ingenuity, and something approaching a confession: an autobiography about the self-destructiveness of the eccentric. In a movie of eye-opening visions, that takeaway may be the biggest surprise of all.

[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and is also a contributor to the New Republic Online.]

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