The Science of Sleep, the third film directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is as artfully stunning as it is professionally executed.
Those who enjoy unique, sprawling cinema should catch this one while they can, because it won’t be in town for long. The film is produced by Warner Independent, which releases mostly unknown, independent films on a very limited and low-cost basis. A film such as this – which lacks the essential elements the majority of the movie going population expects, such as a plethora of explosions and severed, bleeding limbs presented with a multimillion-dollar budget – won’t guarantee huge weekly grosses and will surely be gone from Tampa by the month’s end.
The film centers on the imagination and subconscious of the main character, StÃ©phane (played by relatively unknown Gael GarcÃa Bernal, who will also appear in the film Babel later this year) and his struggles differentiating between reality and the surrealistic yarns he weaves within his dreams. StÃ©phane returns to his childhood home in France following the death of his father. He is lured there to take on a supposed creatively oriented graphic design job his mother has cunningly set up for him, which leaves much to be desired to quench his artistic thirst. Meanwhile, he attempts to become romantically entangled with his eccentric, artsy female neighbor, appropriately named StÃ©phanie.
Because this is an independent film from France, much of the dialogue is spoken in French with English subtitles. Throughout the film, many characters will speak in both English and French in the same conversation, often within the same sentence. This lends itself to the strange, disorienting style of the film and is not much of a chore or a distraction, but adds to its innovative style.
The most stimulating component of the film is the visually astounding art direction and visual effects on top of Gondry’s signature cinematic approach. Gondry’s style and grace of merging odd and peculiar elements of StÃ©phane’s real life into swelled and bizarre recreations in the character’s dreams is truly amazing. He taunts the audience’s eyes with moving and changing backgrounds that sometimes appear to be made of paper cutouts and claymations.
Some scenes involve stop-animation techniques where multiple layers of blue and white plastic wrap are transformed into the flowing water of a river, and stuffed animal toys made by StÃ©phanie take on fully animated lives of their own.
One scene that will grab viewers by their retinas features StÃ©phane in his boss’s office, in which he sends his electric razor (which has now grown its own mechanical arms and legs) to attack his close-minded superior. He takes over the office in a bizarre, self-proclaiming manner, assuming control by covering the walls with his artwork by means of zooming them through the air and onto the walls in a graceful, ‘conductor-esqe’ flowing glide. He then dismantles the city outside the office window, only to reconstruct it by waving his arms when his co-workers become upset.
Much of the film takes place within StÃ©phane’s mind, in which he is the host of a make-believe television show of his conscious life. He spends time here with his love interest StÃ©phanie, as well as his mother and his co-workers. His studio is located behind his eyes (which are two windows with drapes) where he composes music to his life on an organ and records the program with a fake camera constructed with cardboard and packing tape. If this all sounds a bit quirky and strange, it is.
The central story here is the developing love connection between StÃ©phane and StÃ©phanie and the struggles he encounters while trying to court her. Unsure of what is real and what is imaginary, StÃ©phane becomes confused with the signals he may or may not be receiving from StÃ©phanie – or any of the encounters he has with everyone in his life.
The angle of mixing the real and the imaginary was a fresh idea once, though over the years has become somewhat played out and clichÃ©. Gondry is still able to make this attempt at innovative filmmaking fresh, with images that will keep viewer’s eyelids peeled back and pupils tweaked.
If there is one shortcoming to the film, it is that it doesn’t posses the same dark, emotional depth of Gondry’s previous film, Eternal Sunshine. The confusion the characters encounter, as well as the audience at some moments, keeps them from becoming completely emotionally absorbed. If a painter compared every work of their art to the Mona Lisa, then no one would ever paint anything – and luckily for Gondry and movie watchers, this is not the case.
Though The Science of Sleep is not superior to his previous work, Gondry achieves a unique and wonderful piece of moving pictures that one could truly label as art without a stutter or a blink of an eye.