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Movie Review: The Science of Sleep

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After watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the Directors' Series Michel Gondry video compilation DVD, Gondry became one of my favorite directors. So, I'd been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and that can sometimes skew your perception of a film. The trailer and publicity material create a movie in your mind that doesn't always match up to the one on screen.

In some ways, this film was exactly what I was expecting, but the overall tone was very surprising. I was expecting something very fantastic in an upbeat way, a journey through the wonder of dream worlds, but what's on screen is a brutally real drama about a man's difficulty in adjusting to the emotional needs of reality. It winds up as an even tougher film than Eternal Sunshine, because in this case, the couple never even gets to have the good times that Joel and Clementine did; rather it's a potential true love that's snuffed out before it can even begin.

When Eternal Sunshine came out, very few people saw it, but in the years since, it's become the go-to favorite movie for the college crowd, and a large part of that is the ease with which most viewers can relate to the film. It may have some weird stuff, but the emotional core of the film has something for everyone. The film has a lot of Gondry in it, but in a lot of ways, Science of Sleep feels like he took those themes he'd already explored and decided to address them in a truly personal context. I hesitate to draw a one hundred percent correlation between the main character Stephane and Gondry, but to me, this felt like the most damning autobiographical film since Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Both films allow the lead character, clearly a spin on the director, to show off what he's good at, but end up punishing their emotional inadaquecies rather than celebrating their virtues.

One of the central images of creativity is the suffering artist. A lot of people give the impression that you can't make truly meaningful art until you've experienced emotional pain. I think that's true in some respects; total happiness would also mean no desire to move forward and do more. An artist is someone who isn't happy unless he's working on something. As someone who does make films, I find it difficult to see what other people could do to derive the same satisfaction as I get from making films. But, in punishing himself/the character, I think Gondry may be taking this too far. Clearly, this is someone who's at the top of his field, an incredibly respected filmmaker, but the film leads us to believe he's got some guilt about not doing something more real with his life, with spending his time trapped in this fusion of dream and reality. But, is his intention in punishing the character really to punish himself?

All that and I've barely even touched on the film itself. Looking at this film as the follow-up to Eternal Sunshine, the most immediately notable difference is that the boundary between dream and reality has become much more fluid. Eternal used the memory machine as a device to allow for flights of fancy, whereas here the switches between dream and reality are generally unmotivated and sometimes not even apparent. The film immerses you in the perceptual experience of its main character, so that you're never sure exactly what is real and what is just in his head. I think the film succeeds in keeping a coherent emotional arc, so that even though you're not sure exactly what happened at times, you always know how it affected the character.

The opening half hour or so is a bit deceptive in its lightness. We began with Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) moving to France and taking a job at a calendar office. The scenes with the stop motion animation going on through the office windows were pure Gondry, a moment only he can do. The cardboard city was a particularly notable visual.

It's with the introduction of Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) that we get to the main story. In this film, there are outlandish dream sequences, but there's also a crushing naturalism to the scenes set in the "real world." When I saw him speak, Gondry talked about how he didn't want any CG, and I think that was a brilliant choice. The flying scenes were accomplished by having Gael swim with projected backgrounds behind him, and it winds up looking as good as any movie flying scene I've encountered.

With most CG, particularly stuff meant to dazzle rather than blend in, there's a tendency to respect it more as good CG than to approach it as something extraordinary and real as the characters do. So, even the best stuff takes you out of the story. The Illusionist is a great example of this — the CG used in the magic trick sequences meant that we couldn't share the audience's astonishment, we're aware of how the trick is done. But, this film uses totally unique techniques that do make you ponder how they did that, but more importantly, are just visually amazing on their own, and those amazing visuals fit perfectly into the realistic world in the rest of the film. It makes it easy to keep minimum separation between the dream world and the real world.

Anyway, the first scene with Stephanie perfectly exemplifies the film's core theme — the idea that this dreamer is too naive and childlike to make it in reality. The two women in this scene talk about him while he's right there and delight in messing with him. Throughout the film, Stephane's childlike qualities are played up, from having him sleep in his childhood bedroom, to having his mom move in with him. He seems to be regressing as time moves forward. Guy (Alain Chabat) is in the film as a contrast to this, the ultimate man, someone who happily works his boring job, then goes out at night to find someone to fuck. At one point, Stephane says there's more to life than women, something that Guy would dispute. I think this is also Gondry commenting on the nature of being an artist; he expresses himself through his art, partly because he is too shy to go after girls.

If you watch the "I've Been Twelve Forever" documentary on Gondry's Director's Series DVD, you can see a lot of the emotional qualities that inform Stephane here, the concern about having big hands, the invention of wacky things, and most importantly that lack of self-confidence that can cause a retreat from reality. There, Gondry talks about a dream he had where he was back in his childhood home, and that may have informed the setting of this film.

In Stephanie, Stephane sees someone he thinks is like him, an introverted, artistic type. However, because he was more interested in another woman at first, he winds up sabotaging the relationship right at its beginning. He doesn't become aware of his attraction to Stephanie until they start to make art together, in a truly magical scene, in which Stephane hoists clouds into the air above them. Throughout the film, there's a ton of these small but very cool moments that help deepen one's immersion in this partricular reality.

This is a truly great film that's unlike anything I've ever seen before. The blend of crazy, dream visuals with crushingly real emotion works wonderfully and I think it'll be even easier to get lost in the film's world with more viewings. I was surprised by how similar the film is to Eternal Sunshine, but while that one was primarily Charlie Kaufman with some Gondry, this is all Gondry and it's one of the most singularly personal films I've ever seen. Gondry has taken his life and all his work to date and poured it all into this movie. That may mean an occasional lack of coherence, but it also means a consistent string of visual delights. Add on top of this wonderful acting from everyone involved, grounding the fanciful stuff in an emotional reality. If nothing else, the film proves that Charlotte Gainsbourg will be remembered for more than just "Lemon Incest."

The film wasn't what I expected, but it still lived up to my expectations. I'm really happy that Gondry's found a way to transfer the energy of his music videos into a feature format, maintaining the visual inventiveness, but adding a much deeper emotional base. I'm not sure if it's better than Eternal Sunshine, but it's definitely right up there with it.

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  • James Grebmops

    You said that “if nothing else, the film proves that Charlotte Gainsbourg will be remembered for more than just ‘Lemon Incest.’

    That is kinda preposterous, because Gainsbourg has been an accomplished actress since the mid 1980s. Just because you haven’t seen her anywhere else doesn’t mean that she has a bad reputation. Sure, “Lemon Incest” was big, but it’s ancient history by now, and she even has a new album of songs, released a few years ago.