This Fall's Sleeper Hit

The Science of Sleep

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, September 25, 2006

 

"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 well.
 
And, yet, they almost didn't. The art form entered creative freefall, viewer boredom set in, and MTV largely switched to pioneering reality television.
 
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 talent.
 
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.

 

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