Science of Sleep, The (France, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Science of Sleep is director Michael Gondry's feature follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, in many ways, it feels like an inferior cannibalization of the 2004 movie. Both movies spend lengthy sequences inside the protagonist's head and toy with the line between reality and fantasy. However, there's a key difference. What Eternal Sunshine did with magic and whimsy, The Science of Sleep accomplishes with confusion and pretentiousness. The dream sequences in The Science of Sleep, which comprise an inordinately large fraction of the running time, are dull and off-putting - the work of a man who desperately wants to be acknowledged as a creative visionary. They interrupt the flow of what might otherwise be an endearing romance.

Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) often has trouble differentiating dreams from reality. To him, his nighttime exploits, in which he plays the host of a TV talk show called "Stéphane TV," are more compelling that his daily routine, which sees him engaged in drudgery at a calendar-making company. The one bright spot in Stéphane's life is his next-door neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a quiet young woman who befriends him. At first, she appears to be romantically interested in Stéphane, but when he reciprocates, she backs off. His odd, juvenile behavior - wandering the apartment building hall in the nude and slipping a note under her door, sneaking in through her window, and offering a sudden marriage proposal - are cause for concern, but none of those things scares Stéphanie away, at least not completely.

What Gondry tries to do with the dream sequences and what he succeeds in doing are different things. The film is intended to be a kind of fairy tale, with Stéphane seeking a balance between the liveliness of what transpires in his slumber and the monotony of his waking life. In movies like this, a little magical realism goes a long way, and The Science of Sleep feeds it to us long after we have begun choking on it. A lot of what transpires during the course of the film feels forced. Stéphane's dreams, with their cardboard sets and intentionally cheesy special effects (including stop-motion animation), seem like the work of a director who's trying to prove how clever he can be. Films like Big Fish and Gondry's own Eternal Sunshine prove it's possible to do this kind of story in a way that captivates audiences. The Science of Sleep misses the mark by a wide margin.

Gondry believes that Stéphane's dream sequences should look like a child's playroom. All that's missing is Pee Wee Herman. While this is intentional, it looks cheap. The dream sequences often seem more like amateur movies than pieces of a larger whole. Some will argue that Gondry's approach is imaginative, but there's little here to seize the imagination. In an era when dreamscapes are often visually stunning, or at least interesting, Gondry's choice - whether or not it was imposed upon him by the budget - is lackluster.

One of my annoyances with the film is that the real-life story, which focuses on the tentative relationship between Stéphane and Stéphanie, works. Gondry doesn't rush headlong into a love-at-first-sight romance. Initially, Stéphane is more interested in Stéphanie's slutty friend, Zoe (Emma de Caunes). It's only after he embarks upon an artistic project with her that his feelings deepen. There's a lot about Stéphanie that remains unrevealed. Her "secret" is hinted at during a conversation between Stéphane and a co-worker, but Gondry never follows up on this. The ending is exasperating because there are multiple interpretations for what happens, none of which are satisfying. I left The Science of Sleep feeling cheated.

Whatever, the film's faults, it's tough to lay the blame at the feet of the leads. Gael García Bernal brings to bear all of his considerable charm and charisma, occasionally seeming to channel a young Johnny Depp. Charlotte Gainsbourg's unconventional attractiveness serves her well in this role, where a more traditionally pretty actress might not have been convincing. Her underplaying of Stéphanie is a perfect counterpoint to Bernal's overplaying of Stéphane. These are the only two genuine characters in the film; the supporting players are reduced to acting out caricatures. There's little humanity or life in anyone other than Stéphane and Stéphanie.

Gondry enjoys toying with the audience to the extent where we're never 100% certain whether a scene is real, a dream, or a combination. He does things in seemingly "real" scenes (like having a one-second time machine work) that cause us to question whether the entire movie is unspooling in Stéphane's imagination. The ending is maddening in the way it fails to provide closure or catharsis. Gondry might argue that he's leaving it up to the viewer do the interpretation, but it feels more like he's thumbing his nose at us. This is not one of those occasions when an ambiguous finale enhances the film-going experience. Like much of what transpires before, it merely leaves us unfulfilled and frustrated.

Science of Sleep, The (France, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-09-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1