My favorite movies are always about dreams. As are my favorite books. In my mind, the standard by which all artistic output should be weighed is how successfully the creative mind has tapped into his or her dream-world, and how completely he or she can immerse the audience in an inclusive experience of discovery. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while interesting for its deft technical presentation and hip-as-nails soundtrack, exploited dream mechanics to present an immeasurably dull tale about love. That movie also had the misfortune to feature the ice-queen Kirsten Dunst and loathsome, nauseating Jim Carrey, may his name be forgotten and his progeny dragged through the mud. The director Michel Gondry, before making Sunshine, had enjoyed a reputation as the eccentric behind some of the best music videos of the late ’90’s and early ’00’s. His newest project, The Science of Sleep, starring the beautiful Charlotte Gainsbourg and the beautiful Gael Garcia Bernal, finds Gondry returning to ideas he addressed in his early music videos: the passions of childhood, the fictive elements of love, and the chaos of imagination. The result is a very interesting and at times challenging film, though not yet Gondry’s masterpiece.
After his father dies in Mexico, Stephane (Bernal) returns to Paris, where his French mother has found him a job. He moves into a flat owned by his mother directly across the hall from Stephanie (Gainsbourg). His job, where he had assumed he was to be an artist, is as a layout boy at a calendar-shop. Stephane has difficulty separating his dreams from reality, and, as he falls in love with Stephanie, invents gizmos and risks losing his job, the movie devolves into a sustained fantasy in which elements from Stephane’s subconscious leak into the real world until dreams become inseparable from reality and vice-versa. The characters in the film try to communicate in a mélange of French, Spanish and, primarily, English. Gondry finds ample opportunities for mixed symbols, cinematic portmanteaus and time-disjunction. He rarely loses control, however, and his vision is flavorful enough to get us through the more eccentric moments of play.
As you might guess from the names, it is never clear whether Stephane and Stephanie are truly separate people, or whether Stephane has entirely created Stephanie out of the stuff of his own fantasy. His repeated accusations that she “never finishes” any of her imaginative projects often feel like hints that Stephane has himself has not completely conceived his girlfriend, that she exists inside his head. Indeed Stephanie has all the makings of the dream-girl for the eccentric creative type. Gainsbourg is a captivating actress, but she has a quirky mouth and hides her eyes behind thick glasses. She takes to Stephane’s crafty machinations with all-too-enthusiastic zeal and her own living space seems the mirror of Stephane’s object-filled bedroom. At moments in the film, the fantasy seems to slip, and a cold reality paralyzes Stephane. These scenes are devastating. Gondry’s great success, in this film, is in capturing the dangerous relationship between our daily fantasies and real interactions.
Consequently, much of the film rests upon the aesthetic that Gondry presents as “dream,” and it is in this respect that the movie falls short. The risk in all entertainment media these days is the temptation for the artist to trademark his output as a mini-genre before he has fully explored the content of his own imagination. Gondry is known for a distinctly “arts-and-crafts” look in which props are made of cardboard, yarn, foil and string. The effect has the advantage of harking back to childhood without feeling saccharine, yet it runs the risk of falling into that most dreadful of adult words: whimsy. Stephane is clearly a stand-in for Gondry in this film, his obsession with childhood and craft overtly presented in his room and dress and manner. The film, as a result, sometimes feels sickeningly like a business card for “Gondry Incorporated.” With such significant themes as grief and love receiving serious and novel treatment, it is a real pity to see Gondry stoop to such base self-promotion in this film. He should take a cue from Terry Gilliam or David Lynch and find more confidence in his outlook and pursue his ideas earnestly.
Also, Science of Sleep has a hip-as-nails soundtrack.