The Science of Sleep
"The sheer size too, the excessive abundance, scale, and exaggeration of dreams could be an infantile characteristic. The most ardent wish of children is to grow up and get as big a share of everything as the grown-ups; they are hard to satisfy; do not know the meaning of 'enough.'”
-- Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”
The Science of Sleep does not work.
There, I've said it.
Oh, it's not that The Science of Sleep is a terrible film. It's not. It's just that it doesn't operate properly and there's nothing worse than seeing a film in which obvious design and potential is ultimately unfulfilled.
As if trying to prove that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was snatched from his own fertile imagination just as much as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's, director Michel Gondry has made another film about the intersection of fantasy and reality. But this film feels like Sunshine's table scraps. The pieces that were left over or abandoned on the cutting room floor. What Sunshine did with magic and whimsy, Sleep does with confusion and blunt force trauma. By turns absurd and awkward, the film is as nonsensical as a dream. Which is the point. That it strays too often into the realm of nightmare is perhaps an unfortunate byproduct.
The Science of Sleep is Stéphane's (Gael García Bernal) movie. He has moved to Paris to be closer to his mother after his beloved father's death. His mother lures him with a job as a graphic artist at a calendar company. Turns out, all he does is screen-printing. He is instantly miserable, though we get the impression this is hardly a new state of being for him.
Stéphane finds solace and refuge in his dreams where he flies and swims over paper pop-up cities, hosts his own show from a set constructed entirely of cardboard, bathes in cellophane, and fends off attacks from stop-motion electric razors, primordial cousins of Alien's face-huggers. In this world, the shy, insecure Stéphane is replaced by a narcissistic Napoleon, righting the wrongs of his waking life and always getting the girl.
The girl is Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg who is beautiful, though not in any conventional sense) who just moved in next door. Initially, Stéphane's conscious mind is attracted to Zoe, Stephanie's slutty friend. But it is in his unconscious mind, amid the dreams where Stephanie romps and scampers, that Stéphane truly finds the woman of his dreams. Pun intended.
The problem is, Stéphane cannot differentiate between his dream life and his waking life (and as the film drags on, neither can we), which leads to painful consequences for both his own mental state and the emotional states of those he cares for. Especially Stephanie. Try as Stéphane might to win Stephanie with his quirky and lovely inventions (time machines that allow one to go forward or backward just one second) or shared arts-and-crafts projects, she is off-put by his manic, immature antics the very moment she is about to give in to him.
In the end, there is a moment where Stéphane may have found the peace he's longed for all along. In his dreams. But what happens when he awakens? For now, perhaps, it is enough that his mind is at peace.
The Science of Sleep has some beautiful moments. Stéphane's dreams are, for the most part, charming, loopy and intentionally laden with cheesy effects, though they go on for too long and repeat themselves unnecessarily. The parts are greater than the sum. A little magical realism goes a long way and however creative they are, Gondry overstays his welcome. He should have looked to films like Brazil or Amelie for the "less is more" lessons this film so badly needed.
If Gondry was trying to say something about the need to strike a balance between the monotony and drudgery of real life and the adolescent playfulness and escapism of our dreams, he sadly failed. Always one to resist traditional logic and linear clarity in his storytelling, he creates a film that is ruled by laws of physics entirely its own. The problem is, we are never let in on what those laws are. As a result, we are frustrated by the filmmaker's need to flee into the wondrous at every sign of encroaching reality--a reality we want very much to work out for Stéphane and Stephanie despite their puppet-master's string pulling. Frantic and often funny, The Science of Sleep nevertheless feels more like a rebuke to the real world than a fantastical blending with it--an irrational diversion, the cinematic equivalent of the ostrich's head buried in the proverbial sand.
If Gondry--a man who obvious wrestles with issues of fantasy vs. reality as much as his main characters--wanted to make a truly great and yeasty film, he should have shown his audience a way to find our dreamworlds in the midst of our realities instead of showing us merely how to hide from it.