The director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shows us his imagination in this highly original new movie but he also tries our patience with a plot that gets lost somewhere along the way.
Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a young Franco Mexican revisiting France for the first time since his childhood. Still recovering from his father’s recent death and having difficulty relating to the grown-up world of work and romance, he takes refuge in dreams and fantasies.
He finds employment in a seedy calendar-publishing house, which is only made bearable by escaping into his own imagination centred round his own fantasy television show, Stephane TV.
His emotional turmoil is increased when he meets his new neighbour, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who shares his passion for the world of the imagination. Are they falling in love or is it all just a romantic dream? You may not know the answer even when those final credits roll but, hey, life is complicated.
Los Angeles Times: “Nothing much happens, but a lot goes on. It perfectly captures the feeling of what it’s like to be young, creative, lost, idealistic and maladjusted.
New Yorker: “The Science of Sleep is a frantic and funny diversion, but it pales and tires before its time is up. It doesn’t know the meaning of enough.”
French director Michel Gondry gave us the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in collaboration with brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). Now Gondry is going it alone as writer/director without his inspired collaborator and, enjoyable as the new movie is, there is no doubt that Kaufman’s absence is felt.
OK, so it’s all about dreams and we’re not expecting everything to make sense all of the time but without Kaufman’s narrative genius, Michel Gondry struggles to keep his story going or to let his characters ever touch ground. Sadly some cinemagoers will lose patience with so much whimsicality and may well end up having a little doze and some dreams all of their own.
That would be a pity because The Science of Sleep is full of fun, wit and imagination. Gondry plays tricks on us all the way through, challenging us to work out what is “reality” and what is “dream” and then showing that it is not such an easy problem to unravel and that our waking consciousness is never really dream free.
He illustrates this confusion in the character of the hapless dreamer Stephane (played flawlessly and energetically by the tiny but perfectly formed Gael Garcia Bernal) who is so idealistic, romantic, insecure, emotional and, lets face it, young, that he not only struggles to clock when he is awake or when he is fantasising but he’s not even sure that he wants to wake up and face the brutal realities of everyday life.
Stephane’s rich imaginative world involves him trying to solve his emotional problems in his own personal television show allowing Michel Gondry to open his box of tricks and create an ever changing series of dreams or nightmares with wacky, low-tech, fantasy scenes where wobbly cardboard cityscapes, cellophane rivers and soft toy animals are brought to life using a wide variety of deliberately primitive and witty animation techniques. Gondry is in his element here and no one could claim that the screen is ever dull.
Gael Garcia Bernal can do no wrong these days so it comes as no surprise that he remains the charming, if slightly twee, centre of the film from first shot till last. He plays Stephane as a young Latin Robin Williams, moodier, better looking and more romantic but with all the young Williams’ athletic quirkiness and humour.
It was inspired casting to put him up against that most gothic looking of Gallic actresses, the profoundly unconventional Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stephanie. They make a truly odd couple with Gainsbourg managing the almost impossible feat of remaining charismatic whilst playing dowdy, well Parisian dowdy, which is altogether different. She can fill the screen even though her character is quiet and retiring.
Her scenes with Bernal flit seamlessly between humour and pathos as they both try to work out if they are a couple or just good friends. The chemistry is perfect and together they make you laugh and cry.
The dryly humourous scenes with Stephane’s bored fellow workers in the seediest of calendar publishing companies are played with just the right amount of archness by Alain Chabat, Aurelia Petit and Sacha Bourdo so it is a pity that the humour is stretched beyond a joke when they keep reappearing in increasingly galumphing fantasy sequences which are neither that funny nor very imaginative. This is when Monsieur Gondry pushes his audience’s patience just too far.
The Science of Sleep is a movie that meets you half way. If you like mind games, visual imagination of genuine originality or if you want to see two fine young actors on top of their form then there is a lot for you here.
If you don’t want to work at it though or if you can’t forgive a few blemishes, it might be better to make yourself a nice mug of Horlicks and find sweeter dreams under your duvet.
Gael Garcia Bernal