"The Science of Sleep," a surrealist romantic comedy
by famed music video director Michel Gondry, is a manic but
sweet-tempered reverie about why no woman in her right mind should fall
in love with a truly imaginative artist, such as, say, Michel Gondry.
The young Mexican leading man, Gael García Bernal, freed from the
portentousness of playing Che Guevara in "The Motorcycle Diaries," is
sublimely charming as Gondry's alter ego, shy and self-absorbed Stephane,
a childlike graphic designer whose inability to tell his waking life
from his outlandish, ever-mutating dreams beguiles and exasperates the
girl next door, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
The boyish Gondry, whose video biography is aptly entitled "I've Been
Twelve Forever," may strike some viewers as terminally twee, but many
will find his "Science of Sleep" a funny, sad, and dazzling slice of the
Ambien Age. (It opens Sept. 22.)
The profundity of dreams has been overrated from the Old Testament
through Freud (whose now-fading renown was launched by The
Interpretation of Dreams). Gondry sides instead with Vladimir
Nabokov, who complained of dreams' "mental mediocrity." The director
sees his dreams simply as amusing raw material for his personal
artistry, "a big sea of all the events of my life."
Back in the mid-1980s, when the music video boom was at full flood, I
worried that, surely, video directors would soon exhaust all the visual
ideas imaginable. I remembered, though, that in the 1820s after poor,
depressed John Stuart Mill had briefly found solace in melody, he had
become similarly "tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of
musical combinations." Well, composers turned out to have a few more
tunes up their sleeves, so, I reasoned, music videos would survive as
And, yet, they almost didn't. The art form entered creative freefall,
viewer boredom set in, and MTV largely switched to pioneering reality
It was easy for a music video director to be proclaimed a genius in the
1980s when everything was new, but to make a mark in the
been-there-done-that 1990s, as the Frenchman Gondry did starting with
his clip for Bjork's "Human Behavior" in 1993, required exceptional
Gondry shared a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 2004's "Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," in which he directed Jim Carrey as a man
who has his memories of his ex-girlfriend surgically erased, but it was
a gift because screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was that exceptional film's
auteur. Gondry's cinematic contributions to "Eternal Sunshine" were
relatively subdued because the emphasis was on Kaufman and Carrey
finally achieving artistic restraint.
In "The Science of Sleep," however, Gondry's set-design inspiration runs
joyously amok. More surprisingly, Gondry's trilingual screenplay is so
deft that it's impossible not to wonder if Kaufman did a rewrite.
(Gondry denies it.)
Having long lived in Mexico with his recently deceased father, Stephane
is lured by his mother back to the Paris apartment where he was born
with the promise of a dream job at a promotional calendar company.
(Because Stephane speaks French no better than the Parisians speak
Spanish, most of the film's witty dialogue is in their mutual second
language, English.) He optimistically shows the owner his portfolio of
the paintings he has done for his definitively inappropriate idea for a
calendar of "disastrology," with July, for example, represented by TWA
Flight 800 exploding in flames over the Atlantic. Instead, he is put to
work pasting the names of the sponsoring auto parts wholesalers into
pinup calendars for garages.
Bored by his duties, he retreats into his boyhood hobbies of
constructing whimsical inventions like the One Second Time Machine and
napping. He increasingly slips into a dream world apparently fabricated
out of materials found around his house. (Gondry's do-it-yourself
aesthetic resembles a 3-d version of Terry Gilliam's animation for
"Monty Python.") Asleep, Stephane is the popular host, cameraman, and
drummer of "Stephane TV," filmed with a cardboard camera on a homemade
set soundproofed with egg cartons.
Unfortunately, he suffers from one of those only-in-the-movies medical
conditions where he can't tell wakefulness from sleep, with comic
consequences for his job (he's not putting in enough hours at the office
even by French standards) and faltering attempts at romance with
Stéphanie. She is enthralled by his originality and childish neediness,
but is also aware, as Gondry ruefully explained in an interview, that
Stephane is "a little insane… Being down-to-earth is a more attractive
quality for women."
Rated R for language, some sexual content, and nudity.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)