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Saturday
Jun252011

The Science of Sleep

Michel Gondry returns with this multi-lingual, expressionist fantasy, a comedy about Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal): young designer, inventor, and all-around alchemist.   Anything Stephane can imagine he can invent; he benefits (and suffers) from a condition in which his dreams leak into his waking reality.   Thus, his world is volcanic: music churns, everything is in flux, all that is solid melts into air.   It’s a bit disquieting.   Descartes asked, how can I be sure that my senses aren’t lying to me?—I could be dreaming.   Stephane, observing water flow from the tap as cellophane, could be forgiven for asking himself the same question.

Having recently moved to France from Mexico, he befriends Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, at once boyish and feminine), a pianist who’s moved in next door.   His French is as rough as her Spanish, so English is their fallback language.   It’s an offbeat relationship, chaste and mutually ambivalent.   (“She reminds me of my father,” he says of her—not exactly the words of a man inflamed.)  

The film’s homemade special effects hark back to the days when the expressionist filmmakers of the ‘20’s lacked CG and massive budgets, but had imagination.   The effects have the look of a child’s drawing and the texture of something a gaggle of art students might come up with if you unleashed them with plenty of cardboard, plaster and papier-mâché.   Stephane brings Stephanie’s stuffed horse to life through some combination of robotic engineering and magic; he phones her from a dream; they set sail on a toy boat carrying a forest made of vegetables.   From time to time we go “live” to “Stephane TV”, a surreal newsroom from which he reports on his life story and the latest news from his life.    

“Science” recalls the lighter side of the French New Wave in tone; I’m not the first observer to note that Garcia Bernal’s Stephane is a surrogate for Gondry in much the same way that Jean-Pierre Leaud was for Truffaut and Godard—an earnest, deadpan young man always on the verge of a pronouncement of comic outrage, buffeted around by a world in which he can’t quite find a niche; a partisan of love though too internal to be a ladies’ man.   However, Leaud never seemed as uncomfortable in his own skin—embarrassed, even—as Garcia Bernal sometimes seems here.  

For a time it’s a pleasure to shut out the world with these kindred spirits as they play in their cozy Paris flats strewn with Stephane’s wonderful devices; however, the film didn’t engage me emotionally like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Gondry’s previous film.   That film was about memory: given the chance to erase an ex from his memories forever, the main character’s dilemma—easing his pain meant negating from the narrative of his life that once upon a time in this vale of tears, he had loved and been loved in return—that dilemma gave urgency to his desperation.   Here, Stephane often just seems to be floundering.   Riffing on his themes of imagination and dreams gives Gondry free rein for his optical tricks and tropes, but in the end the goings-on in Stephane’s head aren’t enough to sustain a feature.   

- Oct 13, 2006

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