In his short film La Lettre (1998), Michel Gondry introduces audiences to the socially awkward but lovable character Stephane, a character based largely on the director’s own childhood experiences.
The 14-minute piece is a celluloid snapshot of French adolescence in which a boy, Stephane, receives an inauspicious letter from the object of his infatuation, Aurelie. To Stephane’s dismay, the letter does not proclaim love to him, but instead hints that Aurelie has a crush on his older brother Jerome.
As the film climaxes, Stephane confronts Aurelie at a party celebrating the coming of the new millennium. Pressured by his peers and bolstered by the circumstance, Stephane approaches Aurelie in order to deliver a kiss, but instead his head inexplicably metamorphoses into an enormous 35mm camera and in some freak accident, the Eiffel tower is toppled and damages the building housing the party-goers.
Fast forward ten years or so into Stepahne’s life since that fateful night when things went awry with Aurelie. He finds himself in yet another dire affair of the heart, one that again confuses the audience as to whether or not the scenario is based in reality or exists as a fabric of Stephane’s imagination.
It’s another celebration, this time a publishing party for Stephane’s newly designed calendar – it highlights various global atrocities. Again all of his friends are present, including his new love interest Stephanie. But as Stephanie dances suggestively with a male companion, drunkenness replaces the cranium camera of Stephane’s youth, and instead of the Eiffel tower falling, he does, behind the bar, creating a crescendo that ends the party as he passes out.
This is the premise of The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry’s latest cinematic opus. It is a long-play theatrical update of Stephane’s adult life in which things have changed, but not necessarily for the better. Stephane, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is still plagued by his youthful foibles. His overactive imagination has turned his life into a wonderful but schizophrenic mess. Circumstance has landed him across the hall from the apartment of the woman he wants badly to be close to, yet his mental state keeps them far apart.
Stephanie, an awkwardly sultry character brought to life by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a much more complex character than La Lettre’s Aurelie, who comes with her own melodramatic baggage. Besides the obvious name match, she seems to be perfectly suited for Stephane – she too has quirks she shares with Stephane that would not be considered socially acceptable – but as the film progresses it grows more obvious that instead of embracing the eccentricities that draw them to each other (as Stephane does), Stephanie wants desperately to escape them.
Sadly for Stephane and Stephanie, though surrounded by fantasy, real life proves itself to not be a fairytale.
Many music video directors describe their work as short films set to music. But in the case of Michel Gondry, it would not be unfair to describe The Science of Sleep as a feature-length music video scored by the simplistic but human maladies of daily life.
In the The Science of Sleep, Gondry’s music video genius bursts out of the confines of the televised small screen and settles comfortably in its large screen format. And, thankfully, it looses none of its whimsical splendor.
Forces are at battle in The Science of Sleep: Expectations and actualities go head to head, fantasy and reality duke it out, the past and the present are at odds, the heart and the mind can’t seem to agree and Gondry, as mild mannered and soft spoken a director as he is, finds himself sparring with his own shadow.
The film opens on an episode of Stephane TV, the television show within the movie. The host, Stephane, lets his audience in on the secret ingredients that compose dreams. As it turns out, these items are not a secret at all.
Like a dreamland wizard, Stephane repeatedly dumps varying quantities of everyday items – thoughts (spaghetti), memories (a wristwatch), etc – into a cauldron, all the while stirring until the pot issues clouds of colored smoke, indicating that a particular dream is ready.
Yet no matter how many of these dreams Stephane can concoct, or how quickly he can whip them up, reality always rudely punches its way through. Regardless of the lucidity, liquidity, or literality of the dreams, they are constantly truncated by one of life’s many interruptions – a knock at the door, the pain of frozen feet, robotic beckoning from a childhood toy.
I imagine it must have been a convoluted and emotional experience for Gondry to make this film, simply for the fact that this is a somewhat autobiographical exposé into the life of the man that stays mostly on the business end of the camera’s lens.
Regardless, Michel Gondry is not shy about confronting the nightmares of his youth – whether real or imagined. Hands growing to inhuman sizes, a patriarchal death, subaqueous disorientation, sudden calamity and masochistic heartbreak are all personal subjects Gondry tackles in the film.
One reviewer, after viewing the docu-short I’ve Been 12 Forever (The Work of Michel Gondry, 2003) that had Gondry as its subject, regarded the director’s explanation of his youth as “an extraordinary world where oneirism, memories and childhood have utmost importance.” These experiences not only ring true in The Science of Sleep, they serve as the film’s framework.
With the 2004 theatrical run of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry made up for Human Nature, the 2001 failure that was as horrendous as its young ape-man character.
Eternal Sunshine was accessible, starred funnyman Jim Carey, and, most importantly, was a success at the box office. It was the movie Gondry needed to make in order to prove that the magic of Michel could hold audiences for more than four and a half minutes (the average length of a music video) and pull them into theaters in order to partake in sugary confections both on screen and at the popcorn stand.
The Science of Sleep sees the director making another important career film, the film he needed to get out of his system in order to move forward creatively. In doing so he masterminds a cinematic piece in which characters converse in three different languages and the logic and plot are thrown into disarray.
As evidenced by a few older couples that walked out of the film during the screening I attended, The Science of Sleep, though more earnest than Eternal Sunshine, floats just out of the reach of understanding of mainstream audiences. Yet it is this factor – the hard to get aspect – that makes The Science of Sleep an instant Gondry classic.
The Science of Sleep is a must-see film that intentionally sets out to loose its audience by delivering a plot the constantly seems to be running off of its track. It is a film for anyone who has ever dreamed of defeating the neighborhood bully, ran away from home but only made it as far as the backyard or traveled to far away lands in a vehicle made out of grandma’s quilts.
The Science of Sleep (2006)
Dir. Michel Gondry
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou, Emma de Caunes, Aurélia Petit
Genre: Comedy, Drama