Science of Sleep

Even more surreal, intellectually playful, and intensely visual than “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Michel Gondry's “The Science of Sleep” is a product of an undisciplined, perhaps self-indulgent artist, who may have too many ideas for his own goodcertainly for a 100-minute picture.

End result is a richly dense work that feels more like first film, perhaps due to the fact that this is the first time that Gondry is directing from his script, instead of relying on Charlie Kaufman, a more seasoned writer.

Even if I had three pages, I couldn't do justice to the dense, complex, but also convoluted plot that shifts from the realm of reality (itself a fanciful creation) to the more surreal realm of dreams from scene to scene, and sometimes from image to image within a single scene.

Speaking English, French, and Spanish too, Mexican actor Gael Garca Bernal, who's quickly becoming an international star, plays Stephane Miroux, a youngster who has always had trouble separating his dreams from his waking life. Growing into his twenties, this childhood problem has become even more serious, to the point where Stephane's dreams are beginning to take over. Ordinary life is like an intrusion from the dreamscape where Stephanes imagination takes flight.

In his mind, Stephane is an authority on The Science of Sleep, and his Mission Control is Stephane TV, an imaginary studio crafted from cardboard boxes, egg cartons, and shower curtains. As Stephanes inner and outer world zigzags, it takes him back and forth from this network headquarters in his brain.

On his cooking show, Stephane carefully combines a set of ingredients–random thoughts, reminiscences of the day, memories, love relationships, friends, songs, imagesto demonstrate how dreams are prepared. Stephane explains Parallel Synchronized Randomness, a rare phenomenon where two people who have the same thought pattern will find each other.

Meanwhile, the real Stephane returns to his childhood home in Paris, after the death of his father and his mothers (Miou-Miou) promise of a creative job with a calendar publisher. At work, he is shown the ropes by Guy (Alain Chabat), a boisterous man with a taste for vulgar humor, and his other co-workers, Martine (Aurlia Petit) and Serge (Sacha Bourdo), the constant butts of Guys jokes. Stunned to discover that his job involves paste-up, not illustration, Stephane shows boss Pouchet (Pierre Vaneck) his Disastrology drawings of earthquakes and plane crashesbut his creativity is unappreciated, to say the least. Soon Stephanes dreams are filtered with bizarre images of the office he loathes.

Stephane meets his new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, surprisingly charmless) and her friend Zoe (Emma De Caunes) when they mistake him for an injured piano mover. Stephane goes to great lengths to hide the fact that hes Stephanies landladys son and lives across the hall. He amazes them with his inventions, including glasses that show the world in 3-D and a pair of bike helmets that magically transfer names of cards. While he is first attracted to Zoe, he discovers a kindred spirit in Stephanie, who shares his love for handcrafting whimsical objects.

Initially, Stephanie is charmed by Stephanes sweetness, but she is increasingly bewildered by his flimsy connection to reality and his childish sulking. Feeling rejected, Stephanes fantasies become ever more grandiose: in his dream life, he designs a vast metropolis out of cardboard tubes, writes a best-selling novel (I am Just Your Neighbor and a Liar. By the way, do you have Zoes Number), and is serenaded by his co-workers in kitty-cat costumes.

Stephane tries to woo Stephanie with some new creations, including a One-Second Time Machine, and a galloping toy horse, but she remains put off by his inexplicable behavior. Unable to find the secret to Stephanies heart while awake, Stephane searches for the answer in his dreams.

As is clear from the above, there are many thematic continuities between Gondry' films: “Human Nature, “Eternal Sunshine,” and “Science of Sleep.” In all of his films, Gondry mingles chaos with order, conscious with unconscious, id and ego, ego and super-ego, biological instincts and socially transmitted values, reality with imagination, emotion and intellect, humor and seriousness.

At this point in his career, I am not suggesting that Gondry is repeating himself (though he comes dangerously close, but that, like many other young French auteurs, he's constructing a rather too consistent (if not always understood) visionary world that has defined all of his work.

In his portrayal of the disarmingly childlike Stephane, Gael Garcia Bernal, endowed with natural charm, is painfully shy during his waking life, but shows the requisite assertiveness when ne needs to, particularly in his dreams.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stephanie reflects Stephane's own creative thinking, while adding an enigmatic yet enchanting feminine quality usually associated with the “French feminine mystique.” It's hard to think of another national cinema that has produced a more beautiful, fantastic, and enigmatic aggregate of female stars than France; it would take a whole page just to enlist them.

Whether by design or not, since the saga deals with randomness and fate, structurally, the film is a mess. Gondry applies the concept of randomness to the dream world, and the concept of fatalism and pre-destination to the real world, which, as noted, is not very real by any standards–American or French.

That said, the film's production design is a direct corollary of the film's story. The set is busy with objects, materials, and toys that accentuate Stehaone's world. When he tries to direct his dreams, he does it from a room that resembles a TV studio, performing in front of cardboard cameras and walls papered with the insides of egg-cartons.

Similarly, elements from Stephane's “real” life reincarnate in his dreams, but then take on fantastical and unexpected new direction and new texture. For example, Stephane falls asleep in the bathtub, but when he wakes up, he finds himself in a bath full of cellophane.

Combining animated and material sets, Gondry invents a fantastically adventurous milieu that may have been inspired by Dr. Seuss's children's literature. Among the unique images in this films are: a sink that pours streams of cellophane, cardboard metropolis where two-dimensional skyscrapers move beneath a crayon-colored sky, and a man with huge hands (see photo).

Language and verbal (mis)communication are crucial to Gondry's work. Here, when Stephane says that he feels “schizometric,” the meaning of that adjective could be interpreted in various ways.

Commercially, “Science of Sleep” is a rather troubled movie, not only because it lacks stars on the order of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, who were terrific in “Eternal Sunshine,” but also because it's hard to follow and get involved in the constantly shifting surreal proceedings that, after a while, become tiresome.

So far, Gondry has endured one big failure (“Human Nature” with Tim Robbins and Patricia Arquette)) and enjoyed one highly acclaimed classic (“Eternal Sunshine”), which won the 2004 Original Screenplay Oscar. He worked as director-for-hire on the recent concert film “Dave Chappelle's Block Party” (which I have not seen).

You may enjoy “Science of Sleep” if you are in the mood for an unadulterated, unfiltered, and unbridled adventure that seems to have traveled directly from Gondry's id to the screen, without spending much time with his ego or super-ego. Phrased differently, there may have been good reason why it took Gondry so long to direct a movie from his own writing.