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.