Some films defy our ability to speak about them. They are so unique in their point of view, so outside of conventional cinema, that we almost need to invent a new language to match what we've seen on the screen. In The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) deals in dream imagery in a manner that we've seen from David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, but with a childlike innocence those directors have never been capable of. Either that, or a more sexually charged, adolescent rendition of Jacques Demy.
Gael García Bernal (Bad Education, Motorcycle Diaries) plays Stépahne, an aspiring artist who leaves Mexico to go to France and work for a calendar manufacturer. His mother (Miou-Miou) lied and told him that he is going to be creating calendars when he's really only going to be doing scut work. Stéphane has his own idea for a calendar, a chronicle of human tragedy called "Disastrology." It goes down about as well as one of the plane crashes it depicts.
The people Stéphane works with don't understand his vision, largely because Stéphane operates on an existential plane different than the rest of us. He's obsessed with dreams, with the escapism provided by the presentation of randomized experience. As his mother explains, he had his sense of reality flipped as a child. In his sleeping life, he hosts his own TV show where he explores the dreamscape, and in his day-to-day existence, the barrier between awake and asleep has grown transparent. Stéphane steps back and forth in the two states to a degree that he no longer seems to know there is a difference.
His eternal sleepwalking isolates Stéphane until he meets Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 21 Grams). Even though he likes her friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes), he sees right away that Stéphanie is attracted to him. As he tells his officemate, the lecherous prankster Guy (Alain Chabat, The Taste of Others), he is doomed to never get the one he wants. It turns out to be a prophetic statement, as he soon realizes Stéphanie is the girl he should be with, but she's also not going to be easy to catch. At times, she is the only one who understands his strange ideas. She marvels at his ridiculous inventions, like the time machine that lets you travel backward or forward one second, and even begins influencing his sleep in subtle ways, becoming an unwitting cast member of Stéphane TV. The ironic thing is that Stéphanie is far more logic based, and she approaches romance in a reasoned manner rather than an emotional one. Her questioning brings out the petulant little boy in Stéphane, and so he may be doomed not to have what he desires once more.
The romance between Stéphane and Stéphanie is the heart of the film. As in Eternal Sunshine, Gondry is brilliant at capturing the complex emotional structure that pulls at a couple's heartstrings. His characters have such similar names because they represent two sides of the same coin, and when they work in tandem, currency looking to buy the same product, they are perfectly matched. As wrong as things can go, there is something that links them that they cannot sever. Bernal brims with enthusiasm, giving a far more manic performance than he is usually called on for. His youthful good looks make him perfect to play a case of arrested development, just as Gainsbourg's world-weary beauty is well suited for the voice of reason. Even when she is denying his advances, she remains warmly affectionate. Part of her wants to fit in Stéphane's world of play just as much as he wouldn't mind having a world ordered enough for Stéphanie to fit in it.
The real star of The Science of Sleep, however, is Gondry's special effects. He takes an old-fashioned, home-made approach. Everything in Stéphane's universe, from his mechanical creatures to his dreamtime television studio, is made with household products. The studio walls are lined with egg cartons, and when he dreams of rebuilding the world after he destroys it, his monorail and construction equipment is built from cardboard tubes. Gondry takes a certain glee in his creations, bringing them to life with stop-motion animation. The joy these sequences inspire is akin to the happiness he captured in Dave Chapelle's Block Party. Even when soul searching, Gondry makes happy movies. (There are a couple of dream sequences that will bring to mind the Angel House in Block Party. It's no surprise that Gondry was so attracted to it.)
Gondry is well-versed in the uncommon sense of dreams. Most filmmakers tend to think too literally when they craft dream sequences, using what should be oblique interior fantasies as obvious symbols and engines for their plots. When The Science of Sleep uses the surreal as a narrative device, it's rarely to push the story from one point to the next in an obvious way, and when Gondry does cross that line, he can usually back it up with the outside influence of Stéphane's manipulation of his own subconscious. What Gondry understands--and it's something he may have learned from the aforementioned Lynch and Buñuel--is that dreams have a certain randomness to them. Not everything is going to add up, and some of the strangeness need not fit or be explained. He maintains a sense of play in all of Stéphane's visions, and they stay fun rather than growing tedious.
It's only in one of the climactic plot turns that Gondry lets his adherence to this logic get the better of him. The narrative takes a jump in time that is disconcerting at first, and it becomes a little too hard to tell the difference between what is really happening and what has occurred in Stéphane's mind. Once I sorted it out, The Science of Sleep got back on track for a very satisfying finale, but Gondry shouldn't have had to work so hard to get me back in the mood. Given that The Science of Sleep is the type of film I'll want to watch over and over, this could be a wrinkle that gets ironed out once I get to know it better; for the initial viewing, however, it's jarring.
The true success of The Science of Sleep is that it leaves the viewer feeling the way a really good dream usually does. The many puzzle pieces stick with you as you struggle to remember them all and put them together. The sweetness and romance that was so heartwarming when the lights were out are feelings worth maintaining when they come back on. You won't want to let the memory of the visions fade.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.