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The Science of Sleep

One of the Most Original, and Yes, Frustrating Films of the Year

Written and directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature), The Science of Sleep ("Science des rêves, La") is a whimsical, loosely structured romantic fantasy. Gondry mixes pop art, collage, kitsch, animation, and absurdist humor with nods to the French New Wave, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich). It doesn’t always work, but when it does, The Science of Sleep turns out be one of the most original films since, well since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Christine (Miou-Miou) lures her son, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), back to France with the promise of a creative job at a calendar company. Instead, the head of the company, Monsieur Pouchet (Pierre Vaneck), rejects Stéphane's outrageously-in-bad-taste idea for a calendar and puts him to work as a letterer, complete with old-fashioned paper, stencil, and typesetting machine. He retreats to his old room, where he rediscovers his toys and something else, his dream life. As the singular host of Stéphane-TV, Stéphane reworks his everyday interactions into his dream world. Not surprisingly, he prefers his dream world to the real one.

Luckily, Stéphane’s gets a new neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but through a mix-up, is forced to pretend he isn't Stéphanie's neighbor. At first, Stéphane becomes infatuated with Stéphanie’s attractive friend, Zoé (Emma de Caunes), but he and Stéphanie gradually develops a relationship based on mutual interests (e.g., arts and crafts). Stéphane also becomes friends with Guy (Alain Chabat), a co-worker and womanizer, and other, put-upon colleagues, Martine (Aurélia Petit) and Serge (Sacha Bourdo). As Stéphane’s feelings for Stéphanie grow, Stéphanie pulls further back. For his part, Stéphane seems incapable of weaning himself away from his addictive dream life and attempting a more mature relationship with Stéphanie.

Is The Science of Sleep bizarrely sublime or sublimely bizarre? Actually, it's both (if that makes any sense, which probably doesn't). One thing's for sure: there's very little science in The Science of Sleep outside of Stéphane's loopy monologues about chaos theory and random encounters (and even that is barely touched on). No Gondry isn't interested in the "science of sleep", but rather the intricate, stop-start dance of romantic love.

There are some obvious parallels between The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which Gondry directed from Charlie Kaufman's screenplay. As in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stéphane and Stéphanie are a flawed, mismatched couple that probably shouldn't be together. While Kaufman suggested that even mismatched couples might be meant for each other, Gondry takes a less optimistic tack, suggesting instead that the answer lies in retreat into the world of the imagination (albeit one that's seemingly one sided).

It's also hard not to see the influence of another French filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Jeunet in Gondry's preference for the slightly rundown, if no less romantic, side of Paris, flights of surrealistic fancy, deliberate anachronisms, and Rube Goldberg devices. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) and the French New Wave are also referenced through tight, unsteady, hand held camerawork that gives The Science of Sleep a rough, cinema verité feel. Frankly, the hand held camerawork is distracting, but that distraction disappears after the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Interestingly enough, Gondry also stages multiple scenes in hallways, near doorways, and on stairways, all of which seem to pay homage to another French filmmaker, Francois Truffaut and his first film, The 400 Blows.

While brilliant in spots, The Science of Sleep can also be frustrating to sit through. Stéphane doesn’t so much move forward as much as regress into his overactive, narcissistic imagination. The closer Stéphanie gets, the more Stéphane slips into childish, solipsistic behavior, which in turn makes him increasingly unsympathetic. That Stéphanie would want a long-term relationship with Stéphane becomes nearly impossible to believe (Bernal’s talent and charisma can only help so much). More importantly, Gondry also seems lost as to how to end the film, giving moviegoers a brief, abrupt ending that’s simultaneously melancholic and disappointing. If only Gondry had sought out Charlie Kaufman’s help, we’d be talking about The Science of Sleep in the same breath as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars