review: the science of sleep

October 1, 2006


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From the trailer, I was expecting something light. Something weird and off-kilter, certainly, but something in which visual whimsy and romantic optimism were the order of the day. The Science of Sleep did not deliver that, at least, not at all in the manner I was expecting. You see, my preconception of the protagonist Stephane, played with charm and authenticity by indie-cinema darling Gael Garcia Bernal, mostly derived from the film’s trailer, was of a man of vivid imagination and quick wit who would, through his cleverness, win the heart of girl-next-door Stephanie (the sensitive Charlotte Gainsbourg).

It wasn’t like that at all. Stephane is possessed of the unusual affliction of being unable to distinguish his bizarre mental constructions–dreams, that is–from his waking life, and, consequently, writer/director (ou, en français, “écriveur/réaliseur”) Michel Gondry is clearly not concerned with showing us a happy, satisfied man who just so happens to think about things differently from the rest of us. Instead, Stephane’s “gift” is largely a source of pain, frustration, and embarassment for him; only through Stephanie’s gradual understanding of his condition does the story manage to attain any hope at all.

This is not to say that the film lacks humor. In fact, it is full of that commodious resource, from co-worker Guy (the marvelously rude Alain Chabat) and his outlandish advice to Stephane’s perfectly morbid calendar project (“Disasterology”–he’s trying to be an artist) and his fanciful role as host of “Stephane TV” a memory-centric talk show…in his head. Gondry keeps us laughing so much that we might forget how serious the whole thing is; melancholy hangs over the film like a pall even through the last few minutes.

Perhaps that is why most powerful memory of the film as I write this is of Stephane yelling at Stephanie’s door, sure she is inside as a result of one of his delusions. He charges the door and is knocked back, his face cut and bloody. He picks himself up and presses against it then, face full of anguish, and slowly slides down to the floor. I could only watch in stunned silence, all thoughts of lighter moments being far, far away.

M. Gondry chooses such moments with great care, ever eager to show us Stephane, the person, and Stephanie, the object of his affections who is entranced by his often boundless enthusiasm for the childish and the trivial. He gifts her with a time machine, which in his dreams works perfectly. He repairs her stuffed horse, using “chaos theory” to make it come to life and gallop around. All of this we see through the magic of stop-motion animation; its organic realism is astonishing at times: one wonders how it is possible for anyone to conceive the contents of Stephane’s awesome dreamscapes.

Strictly speaking, The Science of Sleep is not new territory for M. Gondry, whose last film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dwelled on much of the same romantic and, to a lesser extent, visual material. But where I found that film’s final moments strangely disaffecting (no offense intended towards its talented stars), Sleep reaches a bittersweet conclusion that I found rapturous, urgent in its cathartic evocation of deeply felt love and sorrow and far more real (despite the wanton immaterialism) in its implications for our super-human yet bewildered protagonist.

This only serves to highlight, of course, the subjectivity of any assessment of what M. Gondry accomplishes here. For me, The Science of Sleep may be the most romantic film I have ever seen, though it competes with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset for that honor (but reminds me strongly of it at times). At the same time, it is foolish to call Sleep a “good movie,” or even one worthy of your time and money. Films like this are of a singular order, limited in appeal: considering that, I would call it genius.

–D. S. W.

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