It’s another slow Monday morning, and as I sit at my computer avoiding work, I think of the innocent idealism of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), the young artist at the center of Michel Gondry’s fantastical new film, “The Science of Sleep.” If only my job could allow me an unconditional creative outlet. Returning to Paris after the death of his father, Stephane gets a soul-killing typesetting job and moves into his old childhood bedroom. Still, he harbors more artistic aspirations than lining up letters in a straight line. The lonely young man is not exactly in touch with reality, but can he really think that a calendar celebrating a different famous disaster every month is a good idea?
The answer is yes, and emphatically so. Untroubled by concerns for a project as uncommercial as this, Stephane feverishly pitches his calendar to the boss, and is confused and hurt when the idea is rejected. This is indicative of how he approaches everything, with a mix of social ineptness and childish arrogance. Stephane has yet to be hardened to the ways of the world, and refuses to see it on other people’s terms.
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On the surface it looks as if Gondry, who also directed the absurdist break-up story “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” is exploring similar territory again. His unique visual style includes decidedly non-CGI set pieces such as volcanoes that erupt like paper mache, cardboard cameras and cars, and blurry rear-projection images behind pop-up paper buildings.
These sets bring to mind the odd juxtaposition and misplacement of objects like “Eternal Sunshine’s” bed on the beach. Unlike Jim Carrey’s Joel, however, Stephane does not travel through his memories so much as he fabricates new ones. His gift/curse is an overactive dream life that frequently bleeds into real life. Gondry doesn’t need to fill up the frame with excessive amounts of painterly computer effects to get his vision across. He knows it is a strange mix of surreal and real that produces true wonder.
By hiding from reality, Stephane actually alters the way he sees it. Meeting his next door neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he suggests she try on glasses that allow you to experience life in 3-D. “Isn’t life already in 3-D?,” she replies, and his tongue-tied response is an early indicator that common reality is not enough for him.
Gondry himself is unconcerned with underlining what is real and what is not for the audience. For both Stephane and the writer/director, dreams are merely an exploration and not an explanation. Dreams are not exploited as simplistic plot devices that unlock some sort of mystery, like the man who recognizes the most important piece of the puzzle in a dream just before it’s too late. “The Science of Sleep” revels in moments of righteous confusion, where the line between reality and dreams is hard to interpret.
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This kind of narrative is not lazy or irresponsible. Rather, it is a difficult one to put across, and Gondry has such a masterful grasp of his craft that he makes it look easy. The cast is also multi-lingual, criss-crossing between English, Spanish and French while a complicated, layered soundscape further decentralizes the viewer.
The love story is just a section of the bigger abstraction, which is Stephane’s inability to connect with anything. For all its lighthearted flights-of-fancy, “The Science of Sleep” turns out to be a surprisingly heartbreaking affair. Stephane is our lost inner child run rampant, flirting with a kind of ideal fantasy that we all occasionally wish for. When he starts lashing out, his inappropriate behavior is a manifestation of our disappointment at a sad truth about our daily routine– expressing ourselves is rarely encouraged and genuine emotional connections are never easy.
Stephane and Stephanie together can make their own playful reality, a place where cotton floats like clouds just below the ceiling. Outside of these moments of pure imagination, their time is awkward at best. The only place they feel truly comfortable with each other is that imaginary spot where they are free to express their creativity unconditionally.