The Science of Sleep

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Overstreet. Reproduction is forbidden without permission of the author.
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Director and writer (in English, French and Spanish, with English subtitles) - Michel Gondry

Director of photography, Jean-Louis Bompoint

Editor - Juliette Welfling

Music - Jean-Michel Bernard

Production designers - Pierre Pell and Stéphane Rozenbaum

Producer - Georges Bermann

Released by Warner Independent Pictures.

106 minutes. Rated R for foul language, brief nudity, and sexual situations.

STARRING: Gael García Bernal (Stephane), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Stephanie), Alain Chabat (Guy), Miou-Miou (Christine Miroux), Emma de Caunes (Zoe) and Aurélia Petit (Martine).

Do you ever feel tempted by a shiny new box of 64 crayons?

Do you ever pause before you toss away the cardboard tube at the center of a toilet paper roll?

Do you ever hesitate before you throw cotton balls in the trash, thinking, There must be some creative use for this.

Chances are, you're an artist, repressed or otherwise. Or, perhaps you're just one of the masses who never quite made your peace with growing up.

You have something in common with Michel Gondry, who wrote and directed one of this year's most delightful films: The Science of Sleep.

Perhaps you're familiar with Gondry's work. He's some kind of genius when it comes to dreaming up music videos -- that's why groups like The White Stripes seek him out. And if you saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you've seen Gondry's work.

While that spectacularly creative love story was written by Charlie Kaufman, Gondry was responsible for its splendid visual trickery. Together, these two madcap artists took us into the memory and the subconscious of their characters’ minds. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet created a couple lost in a bittersweet romance fraught with break-ups and reunions, fractured by memory excisions and surreal excursions through their own brains.

Sunshine was groundbreaking, funny, terrifying, and sad. And it was a triumph. If you enjoyed it, than you know that you can't miss a full-length film directed by... and written by... this grown man with the imagination of ten children.

The Science of Sleep feels almost like a thematic sequel, taking us on what seems to be the logical next step... if, indeed, there is any room for logic in Gondry's imagination. He takes us into the minds of another couple -- this time played (and powerfully) by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. But instead of exploring memory, he takes us into their dreams.

Sleep tells the story of Stephane (Bernal), an artist who has followed his mother's advice about a job opening and moved to Paris. Working as an artist in a company that makes calendars, he is alarmed to discover that his mother was altogether wrong about what the job entailed. He is not being asked to contribute original, creative art at all. No, he’s being asked to design the frames for the art, which isn’t really art at all it’s pornography.

So, frustrated and disillusioned, Stephane begins to look for another outlet for his creative energies. His dreams are wild and outrageous. They color outside the lines, just like he does. And thus, sometimes he can't tell the difference between a dream and reality, which causes him no end of trouble.

And when he meets an imaginative French artist — her name is, of course, Stephanie (Gainsbourg) — in his apartment building, the two fall into a nervous, jittery kind of infatuation.

One of the things that makes this romance unique is that Stephane is initially attracted to Stephanie's sexy roommate, Zoe (Emma De Caune). But his heart is more powerful than his hormones -- a distinction that most American romances fail to understand. And soon he realizes that he's much more interested in Stephanie, who's awkward, mousey, and looks more like a librarian than a typical big-screen dream girl.

And, come on guys... aren't we all tired of typical big-screen dream girls? Haven't we learned how disposable they are? Don't we long for someone interesting, intelligent, unpredictable, and fun? We aren't likely to fall for Stephanie at first glance, but, like poor Stephane, we'll probably all be longing for her by the end.

While Stephane and Stephanie seem completely unable to communicate like normal human beings, when they turn their attention to creative collaboration, amazing things happen. We might find ourselves beneath a sky of cotton-ball clouds, riding a stuffed horse, driving through a metropolis made entirely of leftover cardboard, or lashing out at our maddening coworkers with hands that have swollen to ten times their original size. Whether it’s a boat that carries a small forest or a time machine with a range of only one-second, their inventions are small wonders well-worth the price of admission.

A friend of mine called The Science of Sleep "a Jim Henson movie for adults," and he's hitting pretty close to the mark. This is the most imaginative big screen film since last year's sorely underrated fantasy film from the Henson company -- MirrorMask. Perhaps this reminder of the Muppets has something to do with why, in spite of the whimsy and surprise, there's a current of melancholy through Gondry whole endeavor.

We all find, as we grow up, that age and experience bring with them responsibility. We can't go on living as recklessly and indulgently and impulsively as we did when we were small children. We can't live in a dreamland of our own making, or we end up becoming selfish or worse... crazy. And yet, something inside us longs for the carefree spirit of our childhood, for a time when possibilities seemed endless and we weren't distracted by the pressures and demands of adulthood. The film is bittersweet because it stimulates that longing inside us.

At the same time, it's inspiring. Most of us have swung too far in the other direction, and left that childlike spirit too far behind. We've let the pressures of adulthood harden us, diminish our imaginations, mess with our humor and hope.

That's why I find Gondry's imagination so appealing and necessary. Sure, his movie is bound to offend some folks because, as recklessly creative as he is, he steps over a line here or there. But if you're discerning and patient enough to cope with his occasional missteps, you'll find that the rewards of his work are treasure indeed.


Jeffrey's Rating: B+
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