Christine (Miou-Miou) lures her son, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), back to France with the promise of a creative job at a calendar company. Instead, the head of the company, Monsieur Pouchet (Pierre Vaneck), rejects Stéphane's outrageously-in-bad-taste idea for a calendar and puts Stéphane's to work as a letterer, complete with old-fashioned paper, stencil, and typesetting machine. Stéphane retreats to his old room, where he rediscovers his toys and something else, his dream life. As the singular host of Stéphane-TV, Stéphane reworks his everyday interactions into his dream world. Not surprisingly, Stéphane prefers his dream world to the real world, finding it increasingly difficult to get to work on time.
Luckily, Stéphane's gets a new neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but through a mix-up, is forced to pretend he isn't Stéphanie's neighbor. At first, Stéphane becomes infatuated with Stéphanie's attractive friend, Zoé (Emma de Caunes), but Stéphane and Stéphanie gradually develops a relationship based on mutual interests (e.g., arts and crafts). Stéphane also becomes friends with Guy (Alain Chabat), a co-worker and womanizer, and other, put-upon colleagues, Martine (Aurélia Petit) and Serge (Sacha Bourdo). As Stéphane's feelings for Stéphanie grow, Stéphanie pulls further back. For his part, Stéphane seems incapable of weaning himself away from his addictive dream life and attempting a more mature relationship with Stéphanie.
Is The Science of Sleep bizarrely sublime or sublimely bizarre? Actually, it's both (if that makes any sense, which it probably doesn't). One thing's for sure, though, there's very little science in The Science of Sleep outside of Stéphane's digressive rants about chaos theory and random encounters (and even that is barely touched on). No Gondry isn't interested in the "science of sleep," but rather the intricate, stop-start dance of romantic love. As an artist, Stéphane is pegged as being in touch with his inner creative spirit, as well as a fascination or obsession with his own childhood, something Stéphane obviously shares with the lead character from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry's previous film.
There are some obvious parallels between The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which Gondry directed from Charlie Kaufman's (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) screenplay. As in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stéphane and Stéphanie are a flawed, mismatched couple who probably shouldn't be together. While Kaufman suggested that even mismatched couples may be meant for each other, Gondry takes a less optimistic tack, suggesting instead that the answer lies in retreat into the world of the imagination (albeit one that's seemingly one sided).
It's also hard not to see the influence of another French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children) in Gondry's preference for the slightly rundown, if no less romantic, side of Paris, flights of surrealistic fancy, deliberate anachronisms, and Rube Goldberg devices. Gondry also nods in the direction of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave via close-in, shaky hand held camerawork. Yes, it's distracting, but that's only for the first fifteen or twenty minutes (after which we don't notice anymore). Interestingly enough, Gondry also stages multiple scenes in hallways, near doorways, and on stairways, all of which pays homage to Francois Truffaut and his first feature-length film, The 400 Blows.
Homage aside, The Science of Sleep misses out on concluding the romantic subplot in an emotionally satisfying manner, due primarily to Gondry's inability (or conscious choice) to create a coherent storyline for his characters to move through. As for character arcs, Stéphane doesn't so much forward as much as regress into his overactive imagination. When Stéphane's faced with the intimacy he's been looking and hoping for, he slips back into boorish, selfish behavior, behavior masks a serious personality deficit. That Stéphanie would want a long-term relationship with Stéphane becomes, sadly, difficult, if not impossible, to believe (and that's after taking Bernal's talent and charisma into account). And for a director who's last two films were written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry seems lost as to how to end The Science of Sleep, preferring a brief, abrupt end tinged with a melancholy that's only partly earned.
© Mel Valentin, 15th September, 2006
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