I still remember learning about the science of dreams in my high school Advanced Placement Biology course. My instructor offered an explanation of the near slumbering mind as a canvas on which our synapses create a random impressionistic display of the experiences that comprise the color and texture of our lives. As someone who has lived in a variety of places and created separate communities of people whose paths rarely if ever get to crossover, I've always been taken with this notion, the idea of a cut-and-paste landscape where friends and family can mix and mingle in new spaces. It is literally like being able to edit the movie of your life.
Writer/director Michel Gondry takes this premise far beyond my rudimentary conception. He has made a career of combining the everyday with the absurdly unreal. Undoubtedly, his visionary approach — at least in his feature film efforts Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — has assumed to be the result of his collaboration with the pretzel logic of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. With The Science of Sleep, Gondry invites us into his head chamber as he sleeps to dream of a romance unlike anything we've dared to see when we turn the lights down for the night.
At its core, Sleep is rooted in the sorrows of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young man mourning the loss of his father. Stephane is an artistic free spirit and an inventor of an unusual bent who seems to be at a loss in maintaining his connection to the world around him.
His mother finds him a job as a typesetter with a design group, but he makes a pitch to create a calendar where each month features a different, more intricately rendered disaster, natural or man-made. For him, the passage of time documents the careless and unforeseen possibility of devastating loss.
This all seemingly changes when he meets Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an artist who moves in across the hall in his apartment building. Walking out his door on the way to work, he is pressed into helping move a grand piano into her apartment, but the comic mishap that results is something straight out of a silent film or an old cartoon.
The two strike up a totally expected relationship that never achieves the anticipated outcome from the standpoint of an audience weaned on Hollywood romantic comedies (or the dryly sentimental British variety).
Stephane narrates portions of the story from the studio in his mind where he watches the proceedings and offers comments on the action as it unfolds. His studio perspective recalls the dingy lo-fi, DIY approach of a lonely geek seeking to reach someone — anyone — through local cable access. He is desperate and sad, but never without an idea that could turn things around at any moment.
Gondry freely taps into his arsenal of visual tricks to present the collision of Stephane's inner and outer worlds. To his credit, the use of organic sleights of hand — or in one humorous case, a pair of oversized Hulk-hands — never drowns in pretense. He throws forced perspectives and various animation techniques at the screen, and somehow it all sticks.
That could be because he is blessed with an endearing performance from Bernal. His Stephane is so grounded that the fantastical elements never seem too extraordinary. He makes Stephane an Everyman who struggles, but he never allows the audience to forget that he is just a sweet, clueless guy.
Gainsbourg has an equally challenging role in that she must be the girl next door, the unobtainable object of beauty on a pedestal and a bit of a vamp. Her performance shifts from scene to scene — sometimes even moment to moment within scenes — but it works because Stephanie is first and foremost a bright woman, much like romantic foils in each of the director's previous efforts.
But it's Gondry who should receive the lion's share of the credit for bringing The Science of Sleep to fruition. This year has provided us with feature films from music video directors who, like Gondry, are seeking to make the leap from the short-form to the big screen. (See Idlewild and Something New, among others.) They've done so with mixed results.
Gondry has proven to have to be a special case. He has found ways to make his imaginative visuals work within arresting, complex narratives, and hopefully audiences will be willing to take the ride with him. We should all close our eyes and open our minds to romantic dreams like The Science of Sleep. Perchance our own dreams might make more sense. Grade: A