22 February 2007

The Science of Sleep

Grade: B
Written & Directed by: Michel Gondry

A friend recently asked if I planned on seeing The Science of Sleep, and to his surprise I responded with an unenthusiastic, "eh, maybe." I like Gondry as a director, I explained, but even more I enjoy Charlie Kaufman's scripts; the issue for me therefore was, "can Gondry be trusted to make a movie by himself?" and from the looks of the trailer I was not too eager to find out. (Obviously, however, since a review follows I took the risk.)

Gondry's protagonist, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), is the host of Stephane TV, a television programme resembling a morning talk show with its inclusion of a little bit of everything, such as cooking, interviews, and a dash of musical performance...

Yeah right, in his dreams! No, literally, in his dreams; see, Stephane is quite the escapist, one of those classic schlubs with a dull job who’s also a bit of an artist. What he really wants to be, though, is an inventor, and the movie is packed with his various creations, such as a time machine that, while functional, endearingly only takes one a single second back in time. Stephane vaguely recalls Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee; all that's missing is an enchantingly, mechanically prepared breakfast.

Stephane moves into a Paris apartment, though his French is miserable, where his new neighbor is the charming Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—hey, what a coincidence! Stephane, Stephanie; Stephanie, Stephane. I cautiously prepared myself for a dreadful meet-cute. He falls for her in due time and a prolonged and awkward courting process ensues. The bulk of the film plays out in the irritating style of an indie romantic comedy to the point that, when Stephane asks Stephanie, “will you marry me when we’re seventy?” I suspected "Michel Gondry" might be a pseudonym that Zach Braff uses when he's on French acid.

Of course, it’s not (or is it?); Gondry is the talent whose previous credits include helming the mighty Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and like that film The Science of Sleep is manically directed and full of wildly imaginative imagery—after all, most of the action is set in Stephane’s fantasyscapes. In the tradition of Terry Gilliam, Gondry exhibits a unique and particularly personal visual sense, and as such he seems to be at the forefront of the neosurrealist wave, though he may be the only one on it. Unfortunately, though the film is well-acted and well-directed, like surrealism proper it feels a bit substantially fustian.

The kid’s got a vivid sense of imagination, I get it. Stephane’s mother remarks of her son's artwork, “I’ve always found it rather strange,” to which Stephanie replies, “that’s what’s good [about it].” Attention, Monsieur Gondry, because you’re treading dangerously close to the untenable realm of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake; being different is not simply a virtue in and of itself.

The Stephane of the script comes across as annoyingly pretentious, a serious problem for the film because its success seems to depend on the audience sympathizing with its mildly unlikable protagonist. But in the third act, clearly marked by a “two months later” announcement, Gondry radically switches gears, severely blurring the lines between the real and the fantasy to the point that it not only becomes somewhat difficult to understand what’s going on, but I began to question whether I had really understood what’d transpired hitherto. Well, now we're getting somewhere Michel.

Finally, in the penultimate scene, the action unfolds from a seemingly objective standpoint, as opposed to Stephane’s subjective that had previously dominated the film. The sudden injection of unfiltered “reality” is deeply unsettling, and I felt apologetic for my earlier impressions of the movie; I was so troubled and caught off-guard I secretly wished that Gondry would stop being so serious and jump back into the sugary fantastic.

With a marvelously affecting conclusion, Gondry ultimately proves himself to be not only clever, intelligent, and effective as a director (we knew that already) but as a writer as well. Overall, it’s just that the film doesn’t feel properly balanced. Next time maybe he should ask Charlie Kaufman for a hand, at least.

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