The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry, together with Jeunet and Caro, represent the French Newer Wave, taking the ideals of their predecessors further by plunging their youthful protagonists deeper into childlike fantasy worlds, either literal or internal. Gondry's The Science of Sleep, his first narrative feature film sans surrealist screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, feels more like one of his colorful music videos stretched to feature length than his previous works, and more time seems to be devoted to spectacle than plot. It's rife in cinematic cotton candy, and can be best appreciated less than as a film itself than an experiment in the limits of dreamy filmmaking.

Gael García Bernal (Y tu Mamá También) plays Stéphane, a young and younger-at-heart artist lacking in social skills but eager to learn. His mother lures him back to his childhood home in France, baiting him with an offer of a job — which soon proves to be nothing but busywork under the direction of a lecherous boss (Alain Chabat), and not an opportunity for Stéphane to exercise his many artistic talents. The only upside of Stéphane's return is his meeting Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), quite literally the girl next door, who demonstrates to a painfully obvious degree that she is his soulmate, sharing his whimsical tastes and fertile imagination. Realizing this, Stéphane devotes all his time to securing a romantic relationship with her. It's far from an easy task, as he is crippled by shyness and a glaring lack of knowledge of social mores. But the idealistic Stéphane is determined to win her at any cost, even if it means spontaneously proposing marriage or breaking into her apartment to surprise her.

Throughout the film, Stéphane is subjected to interruptions in his everyday life by fantasies of his own design. He dreams of starring in his own television show, filmed by cameras constructed out of cardboard tubes that an elementary school student might build for art class. While awake, he demonstrates a working time machine he invented and is able to suspend giant wads of cotton in the air by playing a note on the piano. The point at which reality ends and Stéphane's imagination takes over is left ambiguous, and is only made abundantly clear when the fantasy images change into their real-life counterparts as it is made observable by an outsider, in a technique hereby dubbed the Hobbes Principle. Stéphane occasionally lets his imagination gets the better of him, such as when he dreams he writes a garbled letter to Stéphanie and shoves it under her door, only to realize later he wasn't dreaming at all.

Gondry is given ample opportunity to show off his flair for visual creativity in The Science of Sleep. Detailed props and sets are crafted out of materials easily acquired from an arts and crafts shop, with no apparent digital effects. Gondry seems to have challenged himself to realize a believable fantasy world entirely out of props that were ripped out of shoebox dioramas. In an era when even Aardman Animations is turning to the sophisticated offerings of computer software, it's refreshing to see a film utilize such low-tech effects, emanating the same charm as a replica of a building made entirely out of toothpicks. The Science of Sleep demonstrates that, in this era of cinema, it's the simple effects that stand out.

Up until recently, the dream movie has exclusively been the territory of Davids Lynch and Cronenberg and the like, whose films incorporating the un- and subconscious of their protagonists were slightly darker than the fare of Michel Gondry. Gondry takes the plot device and created scenes that mimic the nature and logic of common dreams, as Lynch's Eraserhead had done with the most morose of nightmares. And like those of Eraserhead, the dreams in Science present the anxieties of the dreamer through a warped, surreal filter. The Hobbes Principle separates reality from fantasy to the approximate extent that the hallucinations identified themselves as such in Cronenberg's Videodrome. Again, Gondry demonstrates his inventiveness by taking the route paved by his more depravity-inclined predecessors and arriving at a lighter take on the genre.

But this film's contrast to darker stuff of times past is made all the more intriguing, due to the similarity of the concrete plots of such previous films to that of Science. The main character of The Science of Sleep is troubled by what could be described as hallucinations, which occasionally hamper his ability to lead a normal life. He is what a psychiatrist would diagnose as psychotic — not a topic easily welcomed in a film which could bill itself as a romantic comedy. Had the screenplay been excised of all its excessive whimsy and given to David Lynch, he could probably create a film with a tone in keeping with his oeuvre. In one scene, Stéphane presents a calendar filled with illustrations of tragedies that occurred in each of the twelve months such as the TWA flight 800 crash, intended to be a joke, in a summary of the attitude the film takes to subjects usually considered to be anything but comic. And Gondry is certainly not the first French Newer Wave filmmaker to incorporate a serious subject in a lighthearted film: Jeunet's Amélie made light of depression and suicide. Watching The Science of Sleep, it's difficult to take Stéphane's problems as the film intends us to, and not be somewhat disturbed by their less-than-whimsical actual implications.

But such unsettling themes, together with a highly abrupt ending, are not enough to counter the film's virtues, among them the aforementioned visual style and realistic-yet-humorous dialogue. But the greatest accomplishment The Science of Sleep has to offer is its innovative use of mixing reality with fantasy so seamlessly, thus furthering the ongoing experiment done by filmmakers testing the limits of unreliable narration. Thanks to films such as Science paving the way, future filmmakers can more easily explore through their work the nature of dreams in life and in the movies, aided by Cronenberg's devil and Gondry's angel atop each shoulder.