Perchance to dream
The Science of Sleep
Finally the French have repaid us for Jerry Lewis. They’re tag-teaming now, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry periodically floating bittersweet, heart-shaped confections across the Atlantic, knowing full well that American movie audiences will gobble them up upon arrival. We believe our gluttony has to do with emotional vulnerability, but beyond that we can’t explain it; we’re just transfixed. Apparently, something has been found in translation.
That’s sort of how it is with the young lovers in Gondry’s latest, The Science of Sleep, for whom courtship equals the quest for a common idiom. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), an aspiring artist and inventor, finds himself crushing on his neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg), in spite and because of how tricky it is for him to talk to her. To begin with, his French is lousy. More importantly, though, he lives in his own little dream world. The movie wonders whether she’ll move in with him there.
Fresh from Mexico and his father’s funeral, Stéphane hasn’t been in Paris for years, but his mother (Miou-Miou) has lured him back with the well-preserved sanctuary of his boyhood bedroom (complete with spaceship-embroidered blankie) and the promise to hook him up with a creatively satisfying job. As it turns out, the job’s a bore, but he suspects there’s some creative satisfaction to be had from hooking up with the girl across the hall.
She’s an artist, too, and her name is Stéphanie. Soon enough she’s also an enthusiastic partner for haphazard DIY art projects and a featured guest on “Stéphane TV,” the one-man variety show playing nightly in her admirer’s dreams. It’s all fine, fun stuff; the problem, predictably, has to do with reality. Though he swims and flies freely among the cotton clouds and cellophane streams of his unconscious, Stéphane hobbles in his actual world, bogged down by literalism and semantics. His idea of nightlife is an animated wonderland of miniature cardboard cities and hand-sewn stuffed animals—beyond whose borders he suffers a drastic, uproarious ineloquence of self-expression. So, jauntily, the namesakes trade confessions, affections, hostilities and other emotional upheavals. Stéphanie’s patience thins.
Gondry has a knack for the halting attraction between creative inner lives, those hairpin turns of mood from mopey to magical. What’s more, for rendering the heart-on-sleeve pop fantasias of imaginative but stubbornly infantile protagonists, he is without a current rival. Recall, for example, that he has some Björk videos to his credit, not to mention two other fiction features, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It does matter, but not much, that those films were written by Charlie Kaufman and that Gondry’s on his own as the screenwriter of The Science of Sleep. Without Kaufman he’s still self-involved but less self-serious—and also less plotty, freer for better and worse to drift along his streams of consciousness, spotting sub-surface flashes and panning for whatever precious ores they might signify.
Well, there’s no shortage of preciousness here. The astute or cynical viewer likely will stop gobbling at least long enough to notice that most dreams aren’t as self-consciously dreamlike—or as whimsically music-video-like—as the average Michel Gondry picture. (Of course, with enough saturation, that could change.) At least the reveries of Gondry’s stop-motion escapism, though inevitably grating, resist the tyranny of lifeless CGI.
More powerful than even the most elegant narrative festoons, though, are The Science of Sleep’s many mad-funny little moments of truth—most of which come directly from Bernal. With a performance so charming and at ease and comically sharp, he may be the best lead actor Gondry ever can hope for. His Stéphane, though nearly pathologically callow, is also credibly, sweetly yearning, and that’s what it takes to discover a lover’s language in the frontier between dreams and delusions. He deserves better than the movie’s cravenly ambiguous ending, its way of seeming hyper-articulate without saying much.
Should Gondry wish to consider future collaborators, a shrewd choice would be Miranda July—not just because a female foil could enrich his work, but also because July, who wrote and directed Me and You and Everyone We Know, already has mastered what he seeks: a filmic vernacular of relationships as collaborative creative acts, equally subject to enchantments and rude awakenings.