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The Science of Sleep is a sweet, charming movie that works on many levels, and reflects well on the already magnificent career of Michel Gondry.

Moving In

Gondry gets the dream-logic of surrealism right
Gondry gets the dream-logic of surrealism right

Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrives at his mom’s house in Paris. He just flew in from Mexico, where his dad had taken him to live when he was young (thus allowing director Michel Gondry to work with Bernal without having to explain his accent).

Stephane is a very creative person, probably a version of Gondry himself. His mother saved cardboard tubes and squares of cellophane for school art projects. So when Stephane arrives, his room still looks like that of a schoolboy.

Moving in, he meets the next-door neighbors, two women who giggle and flirt. One is a teasing blonde, the other a mousy brunette, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Although Stephane is more interested in the blonde, the movie pushes him together with Stephanie

Stephane’s Dreams

We’re introduced to Stephane’s dreams early on. His transition from awake to asleep takes the form of a show called Stephane’s TV, with cardboard-tube cameras and cellophane sets. Many of his fully-asleep dreams are the flights of fancy of an eager young man with a brand-new movie camera, including stop-motion animation of hand-crafted miniatures.

Gondry’s own filmmaking style is creative and clever. The credits appear over an axis-eye’s view of something like a spirograph, an effect he achieved in his basement, according to the DVD The Work of Director Michel Gondry. On that same DVD, some of the tricks in his music videos were so innovative you couldn’t even detect them without really thinking about them. In the same way, one of the cleverest special effects in The Science of Sleep is to re-create the “sausage finger” optical illusion — something that is literally impossible to capture on film without cheating, and yet, most of us will probably never give that shot a second thought.

The movie is surreal, in the sense that it uses the logic of dreams in its style. (Many amateur filmmakers don’t really understand that “surreal” doesn’t just mean “weird.”) Gondry gets the dream-logic right, mixing elements from the day’s events with self-consciousness about personal clumsiness, sexual frustration, flying, falling, and new acquaintances. Even the dialogue has the right sound of surrealism, where the logic and tone is compelling, even if the meaning of the words is basically nonsense (See also A Scanner Darkly for good subconscious dialogue).

But Gondry is also good at just plain strange and funny. When Stephane tries to come downstairs from his Paris flat, he has to pass piano movers going the other direction. In a bit of slapstick, Stephane ends up supporting the whole weight of the piano himself before it falls down the spiral staircase and lands on the street ... at the feet of two cops ... who just happen to be amateur musicians.

Finding New Friends

Stephane’s mom has gotten him a “creative” job at a calendar printer’s. He’s gravely disappointed when he finds out his “creative” job is merely to glue corporate logos onto pre-printed landscape or nudie calendars for reprinting. But he takes the job and gets to know his three co-workers. The eldest, Guy (Alain Chabat), is a real jerk (but he grows on you). The two other co-workers blend right in to Stephane’s dreams. The woman becomes a sex object thanks to Guy’s salacious comments, while the man ends up as a Freudian zero, a small man whose sexuality is mocked at work.

But Stephane begins to have a fourth friend in town: Stephanie. To some degree, she is just “the girl,” although Gainsbourg and Gondry make sure she has her own personality, too. She’s creative, like Stephane; she makes things out of fabric, but she’s not above buying treasures that she didn’t have the foresight to make. A rag-doll horse becomes a fetish for their on-again, off-again relationship. She also has a white felt ship that she wants to place in a forest scene, so she can say it’s looking for it’s “mer(e)” (a pun — the little lost ship is both looking for its mother and its sea — its natural home). Stephane, whose French is not so quick, thinks it’s a great idea to put a forest scene on the little boat, like a Noah’s ark for plants. When they begin working on the little project, she says, with the perfect insight of an artist, that “randomness is very difficult to achieve.”

The movie becomes more and more about the relationship between Stephane and Stephanie, and the conclusion is an unsurprising, if satisfying, bit of romantic comedy fluff. They both want to have the relationship work out but they’re both too insecure, which makes them behave badly, which makes the other angry. Thinking about it now, I’m not sure their relationship can survive much beyond the DVD release of the film, six months out. But we like them and root for them and hope they can find happiness in each other nevertheless.

Emotional Style

The fantastic visual style is creative, playful, maybe even childlike. The actual color palette is not literally bright, and the music isn’t always literally in a major key, but that’s the impression you’ll have watching the film. Appropriately, Gondry makes Paris itself is look gray and mundane compared to the interiors and the dreams.

The style works to make The Science of Sleep a very good movie, but it’s helped immensely by the fact that the emotions are genuine. You could make the same movie without the style, but you couldn’t make the same movie without the emotion — the style alone wouldn’t be enough to carry it.

In many formulaic romantic comedies, the couple is held apart by plot devices to keep the momentum of the movie going. In The Science of Sleep, the romance is kept in check by the normal, human inexpertness at expressing emotions confidently. Both he and she are a little shy, kind of quiet, and their own lack of confidence is their worst enemy. It’s a nice observation of a budding relationship.