Written and directed by Michel Gondry, The Science of Sleep is an extremely personal film based, in part, on Gondry's own life. While it's quite simple at its core, the pic is so visually complex you might find yourself completely lost after returning from even the briefest of trips to the bathroom. With this follow-up (not counting the Dave Chapelle doc Dave Chapelle's Block Party) to the critically-acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (one of my favorite movies of 2004), Gondry decides to explore similar themes, with both Sunshine and Science revolving around a character who fights through his sub-conscious mind in order to land the woman he loves. However, with a script written by Gondry himself (and not the brilliant Charlie Kaufman) The Science of Sleep is a lot deeper and darker -- the kind of film that not only tugs at your heart-strings, but uses them to tie you up and torture every fiber of your being.
Stephane Miroux (played by the charming Gael García Bernal) is a strange fellow -- the type of man who seems frustrated by casual conversation and would rather crawl into a quiet corner and shove the explosive images clouding his mind down on paper. Thus, most of his time is spent on the set of Stephane TV, an imaginary television show (found within Stephane's own dreams) where the cameras are made of cardboard boxes and the various characters in his life occasionally stop by to make an appearance. It's on this show where Stephane attempts to teach his audience the science behind dreams, including the many ingredients (memories, loved ones, music, random thoughts) found inside each one. It's his belief that if he can somehow dissect and understand the science of sleep, then happiness and true fulfillment will soon arrive, bags packed and ready to explore an adventurous future.
Following the death of his father, Stephane is persuaded by his mother (Miou-Miou) to leave Mexico and return to his childhood home in Paris; she promises there's a creative job with a calendar publisher waiting for him. Upon his arrival, Stephane finds he was deceived and discovers the job has nothing to do with illustration or creativity but, instead, involves the tedious task of pasting company logos into the calendar's pre-existing pages. It's there that he meets Guy (Alain Chabat), a perverted, foul-mouthed authoritarian annoyance who takes Stephane under his wing and thrives by spitting out cheap-shots directed towards his co-workers, Martine (Aurélia Petit) and Serge (Sacha Bourdo). Determined to prove his ambitious talents, Stephane pitches his boss, Mr. Pouchet, a calendar full of drawings meant to capture disastrous events such as earthquakes or plane crashes; his ideas are mocked and trashed almost immediately. Depressed and unable to defend himself in the real world, Stephane reluctantly settles into his new gig.
Things begin to look promising when Stephane meets his new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), though deception once again rears its ugly head when Stephane pretends to be visiting a friend, afraid to admit he's the son of the building's landlord. At first, Stephanie develops a bit of a crush on Stephane, attracted to a similar thought-provoking imagination that will soon tear them apart. As Stephane escapes to his dreams for comfort, the new players in his life find themselves traveling there too -- all of them extensions of Stephane's own personality -- and his life soon spirals out of control as he's unable to distinguish between what's real and what's not. Here's where Gondry decides to have a little fun with his audience, using an assortment of inexpensive props to create a vibrant, colorful imaginary existence. At times, we have no idea where we are (is this a dream or reality?), who is who (providing his main characters with almost identical names only adds to the confusion) and what language they're speaking (the dialogue often jumps between French, English and Spanish without warning).
While at first this may seem unattractive to the viewer, Gondry makes sure to delicately add each layer one at a time in order to make us feel what Stephane feels; a dizzying exploration of the mind and how it's constantly playing tricks and distorting reality, keeping us on our toes. The uneven narrative is brilliantly constructed to serve the story and its characters, though some may find it difficult to follow along. It could help to continue reminding yourself that this is just a story about a guy who likes a girl -- a minuscule aspect of the entire film, but a good way to keep you on track. It's also important to note that while The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind share similar themes, the two films are very different. Gondry's screenplay (his first feature-length attempt) is in no way as tight and cohesive as Charlie Kaufman's work -- and it's not meant to be. Sure, there's a story in Science but (as it should be in all films) it's told more through visuals than actual dialogue. Simple household items like cotton balls and cellophane paper are used to not only create this fantastic unreality, but also add to the heartwarming bond formed between Stephane and Stephanie.
Bernal and Gainsbourg do a superb job playing off their character's insecurities, while radiating sincere warmth and compassion. Their characters, though opposite in many different ways, often feel as if they're one and the same -- in fact, Gondry's admitted to placing different aspects of himself in each one. Therefore, it's as if Stephane is everyone and everyone is Stephane. Using a lot of the same visual tricks found in most of his music videos (for artists like Bjork, Massive Attack and The White Stripes), Gondry definitely knows how to take us somewhere else for a little while without having to dump a ton of CGI on our laps. The animation here is stunning yet simple, and doesn't try to impress or distract us from what's underneath it all. The Science of Sleep is an amazing little film, capable of providing its audience with a number of different conversation starters once the credits come up and it's time to step out of Gondry's world and back into the real one.