The Science of Sleep
Directed by Michel Gondry
Starring Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg
So I’m sittin’ there in the multiplex bewitched and bewildered by the cinematic weirdness and crafty beauty of The Science of Sleep, just letting myself be carried away on wisps of cerebral distraction and drowsy wistfulness the likes of which we never really get treated to by The Movies, and I’m like: damn.
See, I have painted myself into a corner of words with every positive review I’ve written in the past. What do you do when you’re confronted with maybe the most wonderfully strange, most magically enchanting, most heartachingly romantic movie you’ve ever seen? You don’t just wanna throw qualifiers in front of all the words you wasted on lesser movies previously, call it “more” this and “very” that. That’s lame, and doesn’t do this new marvel justice. You want new words, words that have not been sullied by their attachment to movies that, as “more” and “very” and “extra” they may be, still are not on the same plane. I need one word that says: “so visually striking and intellectually adventurous that it takes your breath away, but in a peculiar way that makes you question not just ideas about the differences between fantasy and certainty but our own very desperate clinging to a supposed value in appreciating the difference, but also, you know, knows that it is just a movie.”
How about reverielatory?
Michel Gondry, who blew our minds with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, here goes a-musing through an ethereality somewhere between dreams and wakefulness, between insanity and reason that is as removed from the mindblowingness of Eternal Sunshine as that movie was from your standard multiplex experience. His “hero” is Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), a young man who arrives in Paris from Mexico to visit his French mother after the death of his Mexican father, with whom he’d been living since his parents’ divorce. His neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) thinks he’s cute, but he prefers a friend of hers until he suddenly realizes he prefers Stéphanie, at which point it might be too late, because she may have transferred her affections elsewhere. Meanwhile, the job that Stéphane’s mother has secured for him, at a calendar company, is not the creative work she’d misled him, a painter, to think it was, but is instead boring crap a monkey could do, and his coworkers are nuts, to boot.
But no, no, NO! That just makes it all sound like just another Romantic Comedy® — it would be like saying, for example that Lost is Gilligan’s Island. But that’s not really right, either — it’s more like saying that your own marvelously disjointed and curiously entertaining nighttime dreams are like See Jack Run. ‘Cause we open in Stéphane’s sleeping subconscious, where he is the host of his own bizarro TV show that he conducts from a set jury-rigged of cardboard and his own fuzzy fantasies about work and sex and love and his parents and just, you know, the whole life thing, and frankly I’m not entirely sure that he ever wakes up … or that we, the viewers, do, either. You may think you know where Stéphane’s dreams end and his waking life begins, because at first there seems to be relatively clear demarcations between his messed-up but seemingly concrete reality and the fanciful, charmingly low-tech-animated world of his dreams. You might applaud Gondry’s use of trilingual wordplay — Stéphane stumbles through every attempt at communication with a confused mix of Spanish, English, and French, the latter of which he’s not very proficient in — as a metaphor for the shifting truth of dreams, where sometimes one thing represents something else entirely. But the more Stéphane’s shy-guy, thwarted-artist life unravels for us, the more it seems to unravel for him, too, till we’re not sure if absolutely everything we’re seeing isn’t a complete and (in)coherent manifestation of one young man’s pained and lonely id. And does it make a difference if it is all a dream?
Maybe Gondry’s playing with our preconceptions about movies themselves. We know movies are fake and yet we have to pretend they’re real in order to enjoy them: Does it matter if what we’re pretending is real is asking us flat out to question the levels of unreality it’s depicting? Maybe Stéphane is insane … maybe there’s no maybe about it. Is it okay to fall a little in love with a fake, pretend character in a movie? And if fake but sane is okay, then does it really matter if he’s fake and crazy?
I dunno. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t need them. Thinking about the questions is fun. The Science of Sleep doesn’t really care much for the answers, either — it has all its fun is in exploring the wild brain terrain where they live, and making the journey a sweet, breezy mirage.