Written and directed by Michel Gondry, "The Science of Sleep" seems to have been made for those audiences who thought his last picture, 2004's mind-bending "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
," was too conventional and undemanding. Imaginatively constructed at the get-go before falling apart into near-incomprehensibility during the second half, Gondry's latest film is a compilation of genres and random idea tossed into a blender. He crosses his fingers that some of them stick and adventurous viewers go along for the ride, but "The Science of Sleep" is too loose and meandering to be anything more than an ambitious failed experiment.
Give "The Science of Sleep" credit for being a one-of-a-kind film when 2006 has been more known for ill-fated remakes and television show adaptations than creativity. Part-fantasy, part-romance, part-comedy, and part-tragedy, the movie defies description. There's whimsy to spare in writer-director Michel Gondry's madness, but not exactly a traditional narrative to latch onto. What can be deciphered is that Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) is an artist who, following the death of his father, moves from his native Mexico to Paris to stay in an apartment building his mother (Miou-Miou) owns. She promises him an exciting job as a calendar designer, but instead Stéphane finds himself doing mundane tasks and barely tolerating coworkers more concerned about planning an impending ski trip than doing their work. When Stéphane meets next door neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her best friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes) points out that the similarity of their names must mean they are kindred spirits. At first, Stéphane is more interested in Zoé, but when she does not reciprocate the feeling, it leaves a door open for a great friendship to grow between he and Stéphanie.
So far, so good. What has not yet been mentioned, however, is that Stéphane is either a childlike romantic dreamer or, worse, a mentally ill young man. Having lived his life like a dream and his sleep as reality, the fine line between the two begins to blur and puts an emotional blockade in front of his relationship with Stéphanie. She cares for him, and there is a lot that these two souls have in common, but a distance is placed between them when he recoils into his own world. What is actually happening and what is in Stéphane's mind is fairly obvious in the first act, but less so once the dream-like fantasy state takes over and even Stéphane himself is left to question his own lucidity.
Using stop-motion animation, green screen and other quirky stylistic techniques, Stéphane's off-the-wall dreams come gorgeously to life even as they intermingle ambiguously with his consciousness. Never before, or rarely, has a motion picture done such a convincing job of portraying the internal act of sleeping and dreaming. Unfortunately, this is more of a hindrance than a compliment. While I was wide awake watching the movie, it did not feel like it. In return, and as with most dreams, details of the film had already begun to escape me once I left the theater. Thinking back on "The Science of Sleep" a couple hours after seeing it, the picture is but an abstract memory, with large chunks missing and little more than the main story points and individual fanciful images enduring in my mind. A second viewing might make the experience more palatable as a whole, no doubt about that, but there is a nagging emptiness in the script that places the characters at arm's length and keeps the film from obtaining the lingering romantic impact it strives for.
Gael García Bernal (2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries
") and Charlotte Gainsbourg (2003's "21 Grams
") are a bewitching couple as Stéphane and Stéphanie, but their lovely work is overshadowed by the technical tricks and otherworldly visuals. For a movie that wants to be a love story, the growth of their relationship is stunted when it must play second fiddle to the confusing fantasy stuff and nonessential side characters. Director Michel Gondry did a more heartfelt and poignant job of building the romance between Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
," not an easy task since it covered a lot of the same reality-skewering material. By the end, Carrey's and Winslet's characters and the fate of their relationship meant something to the viewer. At the end of "The Science of Sleep," there is the sense that something is terribly missing in what Stéphane and Stéphanie are supposed to have together.
An enigmatic puzzler with a lead character who is either madly in love or needs to be sent to the local asylum, "The Science of Sleep" will confound and disappoint mainstream audiences. For the rest of us, its offbeat elements may be easier to digest, but no more satisfying. Director Michel Gondry isn't afraid to take chances, and that's commendable, but he has alternately bitten off more than he can chew and not developed his characters and their dilemmas with the depth needed to make any of it resonate. When it comes to matters of a human persuasion, the film could have used more science and less sleep.