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Michel Gondry achieved a rare thing with his 2004 breakthrough film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His surreal, twisty love story resonated with art cinema geeks, but it also acquired a new, more mainstream fan base for the French director. After garnering 2 Academy Award Nominations for Eternal Sunshine (including a well-deserved win for Charlie Kaufman for Best Original Screenplay), it seemed like all eyes were on Gondry’s next project…which turned out to be Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Uh, okay. Well, you know, that was really more of a documentary…I’m sure his next movie –
Then he made some weird bilingual part-stop-motion thing? And he doesn’t even have any big stars in it?
Yes, believe it or not, not all directors sell out after success, and Gondry in fact took a step back in terms of accessibility with The Science of Sleep. It’s a meandering, strange little film, but despite its overall modesty, it’s actually quite ambitious. Melding together the mundane reality of life with a frenzied dream state, Gondry avoids every pitfall of the surreal and makes a surprisingly moving film.
Our protagonist, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), is a shy singleton stuck moving back in with his mother. He meets an intriguing neighbour, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but initially finds himself more drawn to her subtly cruel friend, Zoe. But throughout his struggles to find love, Stephane often finds himself interweaving fantasy with reality. And as his relationship with Stephanie evolves, both of them have trouble seeing the truth of their situation for what it is.
With such a simple plot, The Science of Sleep relies quite heavily on its visual style and overall whimsy. Luckily, Gondry is a master of such things, and the sheer creativity of his vision is a wonder to behold. Many scenes of the film evolve from being rooted in reality to becoming entirely bizarre, but like a real dream, it’s done so seamlessly that it never disorients the viewer. From Stephane’s imaginary talk show (which opens the film, and pops up frequently throughout) to the mixed media representations of his dreams, it feels like a school art project, in the best way possible. While Eternal Sunshine was slick with its quirkiness, The Science of Sleep is much more modest. At one point, Stephane and Stephanie create a sea of cellophane, carefully positioning the pieces to appear “random”, and this arts-and-crafts vibe permeates every corner of the film.
Also enhancing the unconventional tone are the performances. Bernal and Gainsbourg are well-respected actors in the world of foreign film, but they may only be familiar to American audiences for small parts in Hollywood films (Bernal appeared in Babel and, more recently, Letters to Juliet, and Gainsbourg can be seen in 21 Grams and I’m Not There). Both juggle English and French here (Bernal’s primary language is Spanish, while Gainsbourg’s is French), and both shine on screen. Bernal, especially, is both vulnerable and hilarious. He nails Stephane’s bumbling, unassuming nature and embodies every one of the character’s insecurities.
The visual flare and Bernal’s alternately charming and heartbreaking performance take this film far. Gondry also says a lot about love and our aversion to reality. But even with such a simple plot, I felt like this film could’ve been propelled along in a more engrossing way. It starts to sag in the middle, and there may be a few too many fantasy sequences to keep the concept fresh.
Gondry wrote the script without Charlie Kaufman this time around, and while he handles it fine, it lacks some of the punch of Eternal Sunshine‘s. The relationship of the two main characters here is poignant, but it never quite manages to transcend the modest vibe of the film.
The Science of Sleep‘s slow pace and inaccessibility will put off a lot of viewers. But I would recommend it to a larger group than merely Gondry fans. It’s funny and inventive, and the film’s charm takes it far. It nails a woozy dream world, but it’s Gondry’s depiction of the ups and downs of the real world that make it worthwhile.