Often lost in his own void between reality and fantasy, Judge Bill Gibron found this inventive romance from director Michel Gondry to be one of 2006's best efforts.
Close your eyes. Open your heart.
Honestly, is there any real difference between fantasy and reality? Oh, sure, there are issues of truth and authenticity, the notion of being in touch with the rest of the world versus escaping into your own imaginary realm, but does that really mean the experience is all that dissimilar? We take away as much from our dreams as we do our daily lives, mixing both to create purpose, goals, pleasures, and guidelines. Involving yourself too much in either can definitely be bad for you. But should we really support certainty over fancy, demoting one's inherent imagination for the other's common sensibility? For Stéphane Miroux, a sensitive artist who constantly blurs the boundaries between play and perception, the tactile and the transcendent, existence is worthless without some manner of whimsy. For him, logic is the dragon of everyday worry, a beast requiring slaying through the power of unconsciousness.
In his dreams, Stéphane is proud and confident, capable of doing everything he only wishes his alert persona could achieve. Or maybe, it's the other way around. For this skylarking savant, a man made up of parts pried from his memories, his wishes and his wants, reality could be a roadblock to a life lived in service of the sublime. This is especially true after he meets his new next-door neighbor, Stephanie. Suddenly, life is a ponderous puzzle that's become all the more complex. Thanks to the masterful moviemaking skill of director Michel Gondry, we discover that those who follow The Science of Sleep end up experimenting with elements both emotional and existential—all in pursuit of a balance between sensibility and the soul.
Facts of the Case
After his father's death, Stéphane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal, Babel) is lured back to France by his mother. She has promised him a "creative" job with a calendar company, and the use of the family apartment. This is important for the budding artist, since he views inventiveness as his primary contribution to life. Sadly, his new career is nothing more than advanced typesetting, and he instantly grows bored. When a new neighbor moves in across the hall, Stéphane is instantly smitten. Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Cement Garden) seems nice, and they both share a passion for art. But there is a catch. You see, our daydreaming hero can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy. His waking life and sleep states are constantly mixing, causing nothing but confusion for those around him. Soon, Stéphane is lost in both worlds, truth and fancy smashing together to play with his perceptions. It will be impossible to woo Stephanie i! n such a state—and, frankly, the young girl may not mind. She has her own peculiar personality issues, and they prevent her from getting close to any man. Will these two ever find a happy medium between love and longing? The answer, oddly enough, may lie in The Science of Sleep.
For all its complicated story structure and lack of cinematic logic, The Science of Sleep is actually a movie about a single soul striving to divide and determine individual identities. On the one side is Stéphane, a wayward young man who views talent and artistry as a burden. He's overloaded with ideas and the skill to realize them, yet the world wants to push him into its own concept of a responsible round hole—something this sizable square peg wants nothing to do with. On the other side is Stephanie, female to Stéphane's male, Ego to his uncontrolled Id. She, too, is gifted, given over to composing music, sewing small stuffed animals, and conceiving visual projects that transcend their homemade trappings. She has found a way in the world, capable of using her abilities to make the social strides that Stéphane finds impossible to discover. Her sacrifice is love—she will not allow herself to get close to any man, the fear of rejection mirroring h! er tenuous position as a paid artist. Together, they would make a meaningful whole, a whimsical Pan manipulating his unusual self-made toys combined with an equally quirky Muse making money out of their combined creativity. But there is an impediment to such a coming together, a wall fashioned out of failure, naiveté, and a kind of sheltered stubbornness. Stéphane is socially awkward and occasionally inappropriate. Stephanie is the exact opposite, blocked off from other humans but quite capable of making her way amongst the common throng.
Such a surreal coming-together between inspiration and determination is at the heart of Michel Gondry's genuinely inventive confection The Science of Sleep. Hot off his helming of Charlie Kaufman's unusual romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, our French filmmaker goes the inventive screenwriter one better, using love as leverage in a story about how emotions mar and mangle even the most thoughtful and capable individuals. When we first meet Stéphane (played brilliantly by Y Tu Mama Tambien's Gael Garcia Bernal), we see a young man struggling with a set of sophisticated inner demons. Back in France after years in Mexico, he is unsettled in his childhood country. His mother and father separated when he was young, and Stéphane went off with Dad. There, he watched his old man mature and flourish, then succumb to cancer. With no real direction, he is back under his mother's auspices, a woman who eventually hooked up with a third-rate magic! ian because she found him funny and exciting. Thanks to his parents' divergent approaches to the world, both centering around escape and self-satisfaction, Stéphane has become disconnected from reality. He honestly believes his boss will approve a calendar depicting the great catastrophes of recorded time, arguing that his theory of "Disasterology" will soon sweep the planet. In his still childlike eyes, the 30-year-old sees that, deep down, people want to be reminded of pain—probably so that regular life doesn't seem so horrible.
But then there's the fateful day when Stephanie and Zoe enter his life. Quite by accident (and with a portentous injuring of one of Stéphane's hands), our hero has his heart opened up, his secret world subverted by emotions he does not fully comprehend. One of the bravest things Gondry does here is make the budding romance complicated and incomplete. He never provides answers and barely brings the couple together for long stretches of time. In essence, The Science of Sleep is a movie about how relationships start, how people come together, decipher their likes and dislikes, comprehend or condemn each other's oddities and flaws, and finally find a kind of interpersonal truce. There is not a moment of sweeping romanticism where characters fall into each other's arms and the music swells to indicate the end of a fairy-tale fiction. Instead, Gondy contemplates the complications of people who are peculiar, looking beyond the standard eccentricities and idiosyncrasies ! to try and track down what makes such people tick. By contrasting Stéphane with Stephanie, her more sublime, sophisticated job in an art store against his horn-dog driven calendar factory gig, we begin to see how circumstance and environment affect the easily influenced individual. But then the director goes even further, using dreams and the state of unconsciousness as a window into another reality, equally important and just as influential to the characters.
Stéphane is not the only dreamer here. In a very interesting moment, Stephanie explains to Zoe about an experience she had, tiny animals cavorting by her door just as a naked Stéphane delivers a demented, stream-of-consciousness note. It's clear that in her mind, moods don't shift so much as slide, easing their way between passionate extremes. Of course, the main narrative focuses on our dedicated dreamer, a man accused by his parent of being predisposed to avoiding truth by tricking it with fantasy. It is Stéphane's visions that make up the majority of The Science of Sleep's optical splendor, and Gondry has a fabulous field day with this material. The French cityscape is seen as a pop-up book gone insane, skies overflowing with cotton-batting clouds and buildings bulging in subtle stop-motion animation. Seas are cellophane, while backdrops can be anything from real-life forests to fake images of cartoon tragedy. In these awe-inspiring moments, Gondry g! oes for broke, allowing ideas to free associate and disconnect in a way which renders their symbolism suspect. We are supposed to recognize sexual suppression and cold, hard realizations of truth and personality in these voyages into inner space, but The Science of Sleep wants more. Instead of being obvious, it tricks us, using references to minor details in conversation and a purposeful perplexing of perception to drive our couple's decisions.
But these quixotic moments of image-based spectacle are not Gondry's greatest trick. They represent an immense amount of The Science of Sleep's charm, but they are not the real reason for the movie's existence. No, unlike other romantic stories where boy meets girl, gets girl, loses girl, regains girl, and establishes a matrimonial moment, this director wants to treat love like the open-ended entity it is. We never really know if Stéphane and Stephanie like each other, nor do we know at the end what their conversations and confrontations add up to. Bernal is not giving any clues. He is so completely lost in his frazzled man-boy façade that we never know whether he's serious or just insane. On the other hand, 21 Grams's Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally elusive. She claims to want no attachment to men—sexual or emotional—yet flirts shamelessly and ponders why Stéphane is not more forward with his advances. She's notorious for never completing a! nything she starts (something that will naturally come back to navigate the narrative near the end), yet loves to give her admirer grief for his directionless way through the world. It is clear that Stéphane is a novice in the physical department. He is repulsed by the comments his co-workers make about various bedroom antics. But Gainsbourg gives off an aura of frigidity that seems to play directly into her potential paramour's fears.
Indeed, if The Science of Sleep stands for anything, it's the notion that wish fulfillment can produce its own misfortune, and that even the most satisfying dreams can drive us to actions antithetical to our instinctual needs. What we are supposed to take away from Gondry's narrative is the notion that, inside us all, there is pure spirit and untainted essence just waiting to be released. If and when we finally tap into it, the results become determinative of our relationships. In Stéphane's case, he so fully believes in the visions inside his head, the lyrical moments of luminous transcendence, that when reality crashes in, it causes nothing but disorientation and confusion. On the opposite end, Stephanie is doing a perfectly fine job of managing her real and unreal realms. But the effort is so overwhelming that it leaves her cold and calculated, neither as free nor as trapped as she constantly believes she is. Within this confused couple, these like-minded mini! ons of an arena where head and hands are equally important, lies a sublime state of understanding and communal consideration. But for now, they are locked in the learning stages of their interpersonal development, and Michel Gondry is determined to only give us the first phase of this lifelong journey. All relationships start somewhere, and in the case of this amazing movie, the point of origin is not the mind, or emotion. It's imagination. How such a basis muddles meaningful interaction between people is The Science of Sleep's main theme. It turns a wistful romance into a strangely satisfying puzzle of infinite import.
Featuring a pro-PETA stance, the added content offered by Warner Brothers for this unusual title needs to be commended. We are treated to a 40-minute "Making Of" documentary that more or less follows Gondry from his early days in the film business through his rise to Hollywood superstar status. An obviously brilliant man, we see how his frequently dysfunctional brain leads to moments of cinematic genius. In addition, Gondry is part of the full-length audio commentary that also features Bernal, Gainsbourg, and Sacha Bourdo, who plays Serge (one of Stéphane's co-workers). It's a joking, genial affair, everyone obviously in love with the final feature and offering up their own interpretations of the storyline's many levels. The friend-of-animals angle comes in the final few contextual tidbits. There is a music video for the Linda Serbu song "Rescue Me," featuring a message about adopting stray cats, another PSA which deals specifically with pet overpopulation, an! d a featurette focusing on Lauri Faggioni, who invented many of the animal trinkets for the film. It's an interesting collection of material, since the connection to Gondry and the film is hard to make at first. But once one thinks on the imagery used throughout The Science of Sleep, the links become clear.
As for the audio and visual presentation, Gondry is one of the few cinematic artists working today, and the DVD of The Science of Sleep is an excellent digital realization of his celluloid canvases. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is gorgeous, loaded with inspiring detail and vibrant colors. Even when Gondry goes for muted tints and handheld camera chaos, the optical elements here are stunning. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound is excellent, offering a multicultural cacophony of English, Spanish, and French dialogue. Thankfully, there are easy-to-read subtitles which do a good job of translating the often arcane conversations. The directional aspects of the mix really come through in the aural presentation, giving us sonic insight into Stéphane's dream state. It's one of the rare cases where the technical issues really supplement a movie's motives.
Most of the problem with reality vs. fantasy stems directly from our social stigmatization. Where once, society embraced difficult artists, valuing their ends while ignoring their means, the post-modern world mocks dreamers, considering them lazy antagonists to the notion of a good, honest work ethic. Even those who produce with their hands, bringing life to a dull white piece of paper or physicality to a lump of clay, are simplified, seen as "magically" capable of such creativity. From the writer to the sage, the power of the mind is made minor when compared to the toil of the rest of the body. Yet anyone who delves in the artistic will tell you that a life in invention is just as difficult as one spent in back-breaking labor. It's all a matter of perception, of what one sees as work and what one sees as play. Thanks to The Science of Sleep, we start to recognize the burden of being adrift inside a state of competing invention and certainty, of not knowing ! how to approach a subject since both truth and hope are battling for decision domination. If we are to believe Stéphane and his way of living, there are infinite possibilities inside the realm of REM sleep. Now, if he could only bring such a stance to the rest of existence, maybe then he would be happy. Maybe then, both he and Stephanie would finally be understood. The chances of that happening, unfortunately, may only exist in the world of dreams.
Not guilty. Representing one of 2006's more lyrical cinematic experiences, The Science of Sleep and its clever creative force, Michel Gondry, are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by writer-director Michel Gondry, Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Sacha Bourdo
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