Though undoubtedly indebted to Les Belles de Nuit — Rene Clair’s 1952 film about a young man whose dream life invades his waking one — Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep is the most strikingly original film to hit movie screens this year — or any other year for that matter.
Let that serve as both a recommendation and a warning. It’s a recommendation if you like your movies on the adventurous side. It’s a warning if you’re very tradition-minded and demand a strong storyline. It may even be a warning for people who fall into the first category, because Science is a boldly adventurous work writ small. It’s a delicate, fragile film — almost ephemeral in a way that suits the precarious nature of a dream. At times, it feels like the cinematic equivalent of a falling rose petal; yet it’s also a very playful work — both in terms of filmmaking and content.
In mood it kept reminding me of Roman Polanski’s 1972 re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland as a sex romp, What? (aka: Diary of Forbidden Dreams). It, too, is a fragile film (it actually has falling rose petals) set in a world that is both real and unreal where the sense of time is skewed by incidents and dialogue that repeat themselves. There are also aspects of Science that are reminiscent of Polanski’s The Tenant (1976), but in what at least appears to be a more benign guise.
Yet, Science is also of a piece with Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — only it’s braver, less linear and less concerned with telling a story in anything approaching a traditional manner. It can even be argued that Science has no story. It has a situation.
With his father dead, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) returns from Mexico to live in Paris with his mother, Christine (Miou-Miou, best known in the U.S. for Entre Nous (1983)), in Paris. Though she lives with a second husband (most of the time, we gather), she keeps the family apartment in the building she owns and installs Stephane in his old room (complete with a child-sized bed). She’s also found him a job — a supposedly artistic one — working for a calendar company where he hopes he can market his calendar “celebrating” each month with the disaster most associated with it. The reality is a little different: It’s a job in the composing room cutting and pasting copy onto calendar pages. That’s the essential setup — complicated by the arrival of a new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, 21 Grams), to whom he is attracted — and, in essence, that’s the story. Or at least that’s the story if you try to write it down as a plot.
The bulk of the film is a series of connected events and dreams that constantly shift from one to the other in a way that makes it impossible to be sure where reality leaves off and fantasy takes over. Some scenes are obvious fantasies, while others seem perfectly real until something fantastic happens. Gondry deliberately blurs the line between the real and the unreal — something that he did in Eternal Sunshine, but which he does here with more grace — and without the benefit of a narrative net. By the end of the film, the distance between the real and the fantasticated is almost nonexistent, and it no longer seems to be the exclusive province of Stephane, but has communicated itself to Stephanie. I say “seems” because the film never states anything, but allows the viewer to read it any way he or she chooses.
The character of Stephane might well be an extension of David Warner’s character, Morgan Delft, in Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966). Both characters escape into a fantasy world that becomes increasingly hard for them to separate from real life. Gondry’s film ups the ante by including the viewer in that confusion.
There are moments of sublime beauty and charm in Science — especially in some of the very homemade-looking animated sequences, which are made to look like the childhood works of a burgeoning Super 8 filmmaker. But there’s also an unsettling undercurrent to the film. The film is infused with a sadness that keeps the fact that Stephane, for all his charm (Gondry owes Gael Garcia Bernal a huge debt for much of that charm), is deeply disturbed at the edge of every frame. That Stephane is an overgrown child is an ever-present aspect — ranging from his bed to the look of his dreams to the style of his artwork and what we see of his handwriting. His expressed desire, “I wish I could talk to my dad,” is both charming and heartrending, while his occasional petulant outbursts hint at a full descent into madness.
Gondry’s great accomplishment lies in the fact that he manages to make the charming and the disconcerting coexist — something brought home in the final image that is both hopeful and hopeless at the same time. It almost feels like a happy ending, but the undercurrent won’t allow for anything that simple. It’s a challenging, daunting, rewarding work that will undoubtedly pay rich dividends on subsequent viewings. Rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke