All week long, people have been telling me that Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep "would've been great – if Charlie Kauffman had written it." Gondry, of course, made his first two features out of scripts created by Kaufman – Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – after spending ten years making gorgeously weird and often very funny music videos for a-listers like The White Stripes and Madonna. There's no question that the guy's brain is full of images; but is he capable, when left to his own devices, of threading the pretty pictures through with any kind of traditional narrative strain?
Well, no, actually, as it turns out, The Science of Sleep is not particularly effective, story wise, and no, it doesn't match Eternal Sunshine in terms of emotional resonance. But god, I loved it, so, so much. It will certainly frustrate those who want directors to essentially present them with neat little packages, fully contained narratives wrapped with perfect red bows. It's not an easy thing to comprehend, and it requires work, although like Gondry's last film, its convolutions would almost certainly benefit from repeat viewings. But I think those who miss Kaufman's uncanny ability to tightly structure his stories around a given non-linear gimmick are missing the point: The Science of Sleep structuring gimmick is that it doesn't have a structuring gimmick: what little narrative it has gets its potency from the fact that the thing is a glorious mess.
Gondry tends to make movies for and about two kinds of people: sad-eyed boys with fantastic record collections, and the art school girls who want to make out with them. This one's no exception, packed as it is with references to indie bands and Russian animators, and goofy retro electronic toys, and fabulous-looking young people wearing the world's greatest homemade haircuts. The Science of Sleep is something like a Luis Bunuel film, but with politics replaced by fashion. It is, essentially, a hipster wet dream.
It all starts when Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal, in a balls-out performance and having a ball) returns to Paris from Mexico. His father has just died, and his mother has convinced him to move back into the apartment he grew up in and take a job in the city as a calendar illustrator. Stephane shows up for his first day of work wearing his father's old, deep purple, Nehru-cut suit. He presents his new boss with a portfolio of paintings he's made for a calendar he calls, "Disastrology", with every month represented by a famous disaster, natural or otherwise. Surprisingly, the suits don't take right away to his childish paintings of jets exploding in midair, and Stephane reluctantly accepts a terrible position that amounts to sitting "in a basement gluing paper."
We know from the first scene on that Stephane has a ... problematic relationship to reality. We come in as Stephane is hosting a cooking show on the (imaginary) network Stephane TV. Today's episode features a recipe for dreams, involving a handful of reminiscences, the day's musical choices (on 7 inch vinyl) and enough spaghetti for two. As the story such as it is kicks into gear, and perhaps in natural reaction to his dismal job as much as diagnosable psychosis, Stephane's grip on the distinction between his waking life and his hypervivid dream world starts to slip. Call it severe, psychotomimetic narcolepsy: Stephane's dreams actually bleed into his waking hours, and vice versa, until it becomes impossible to really discern which is which. Complain if you must about the toll this puts on you as the viewer, but Gondry's just telling it like it is for his poor protagonist.
To say that his sickness complicates Stephane's personal life would be an understatement. Soon after returning to France, Stephane meets Stephanie (the awkwardly lovely Charlotte Gainsbourg), the girl renting the room next door to his in the apartment owned by Stephane's mom. At first, Stephane gravitates toward Stephanie's best friend Eve, even though it's obvious that Stephanie has the hots for him. But after Stephane and Stephanie bond over their mutual affinity for childlike crafts (they plot to build a diorama out of cardboard and cellophane and a broken toy horse rescued by Stephanie), Stephane's feelings begin to change. Unbeknownst to him, Stephane had made a fatal mistake whilst operating under the influence of a dream, and it's enough to convince Stephanie that her neighbor could never really love her. Sadly, this occurs just as Stephane's love for Stephanie becomes too profound for him to ignore. And yet, any efforts to prove to the sad-eyed brunette that his love is true are hampered both by a language barrier (the trilingual Bernal gets to exercise his abilities in French, English, and Spanish, and much of the film's feeling of disconnection comes from the fact that characters will often speak all three in the same scene) and, more profoundly, by his ever-loosening grip on reality. It's a love that cannot be, but that won't stop the by now totally psychotic Stephane from rather creepily trying.
I found Stephane's dark battle with his own psyche minorly fascinating, but still, it's not a coincidence that the film's best scene is essentially a music video for the White Stripes. (Gondry at one point said that Sleep was initially intended as a feature version of his video for the Foo Fighters' Everlong). It's set to "Instinct Blues", from the Jack White-led neuvo-blues combo's last record, Get Behind Me Satan (which, incidentally, is noteworthy for film fans for the sole fact that it's essentially a concept record about White's failed relationship with actress Renee Zellweger), Stephane orchestrates the apocalypse from the confines of his boss' office, in retaliation against his immature coworkers (who as a unit provide the film with some of its best moments of raunchy comic relief) who have been forcing him to work in his sleep. When they agree to give him his dreamtime off, Stephane calls off the destruction and replaces the city out the window with an infrastructure resembling a cardboard mockup of the set of Metropolis. The film is full of scenes like this, that are perfectly satisfying as contained, and weirdly poignant, musical numbers of sorts. But only after a hell of a lot of work will most be able to convince themselves that the whole measures up to the sum of Gondry's show-offy parts.
Others on The Science of Sleep: Writing at Movie City News, David Poland thinks "the first 30 minutes of the film are among the best [he's] seen in the last few years," but is left concluding that Gondry "could have used a real screenwriter" on the project. Variety's Todd McCarthy, meanwhile, calls the film "a whimsical, irrepressibly creative and playfully childlike confection," and Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter also found himself charmed by what he called "a textural mindblower and a lot of fun."