Last weekend, a friend of mine urged me to go see “The Science of Sleep” and was anxious to get my view on it. She was so perplexed by it she said, “I don’t even know how to talk about a movie like this.” Well, with a comment like that, it certainly intrigued me. So today I got to see the film and now I know exactly what she was talking about.
The problem that most people face when confronted with “The Science of Sleep,” a new film by French director Michel Gondry who is most famous for directing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” is that it presents whole new types of film elements that people are not use to seeing in mainstream feature films. In this case, surrealistic dreams. Sure, everyone is familiar with dream-sequences, but they usually only last for no more than a minute or two and reflect a more absurdist interpretation of the plot or theme. There have also been experimental films such as “Waking Life” or Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” where the entire movie is one long stream-of-consciousness surrealism, like an extended music video.
But “The Science of Sleep” is none of these. Throw out everything you know about dreams in movies and prepare for a whole new way of looking at them. This movie is a mixture of a traditional, realistic, straight-forward plot, and surrealistic dream and day-dream sequences. They mix in a way that at first is confusing and uncomfortable unless you release all preconceived notions about feature films and instead look at it as a series of scenes, images, sounds, sights, feelings, emotions, contradictory though they may be; a work of art leading you on a journey.
Of course, this is not to say there is no plot. There certainly is. There’s a love story and some very interesting characters. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a young Mexican struggling artist who comes to France after the death of his father to be near his French mother who has gotten him a job at a calendar company. Unfortunately, the job turns out not to be artistic, but rather the boring paste-up and manufacturing of mainstream and clichéd calendars. Stephane has an idea for a calendar depicting twelve great tragedies which is immediately rejected for its absurdity. He develops a love-hate friendship with his co-worker Guy (Alain Chabat) who gives him advice, some good, some absurd.
Stephane’s love interest is a girl named Stephanie (Charlotte Gainesbourg) who lives directly across the hall from him. That her name is so similar can hardly be a coincidence; particularly because she shares so much in common with Stephane. She too is a bit shy, socially awkward, and artistic. At first Stephane is more interested in her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes) but soon finds himself strangely drawn to her. Yet his immaturity leads him to do everything wrong in an attempt to get the relationship off the ground.
A relatively simple plot. The real complication here is that Stephane has extremely vivid dreams and imaginations, and confuses them with reality. In his mind, he has created a TV show of which he is the host and is filmed in a cardboard studio. Here he is in control and confident as he demonstrates recipes for dreams. His guests are the people in his life and he interviews them about how they think things will turn out. Of course, they are figments of his imagination and the reality proves different. He also has a tendency to walk out of dreams into reality, and vice versa. And he imagines he has the ability to create impossible things such as a time-machine or a tiny engine that can make a stuffed horse gallop. But these things become real for Stephanie and here is where we begin to wonder where imaginations end and reality begins.
The film’s special effects have the appearance of old 20th Century stop-motion techniques. Whether or not these effects are indeed created that way, or modern computers are used to give that impression, I cannot say, but the effect is childish and primitive. This, of course, reflects Stephane’s innocent approach to the world.
Confusion abounds and one of the things which creates this confusing atmosphere is the use of language which goes, uneasily, back and forth between French and English with a bit of Spanish thrown in. Stephane cannot understand anything when people speak to him in more than one language, and we can sympathize with that.
Sometimes what you are watching is obviously either a dream or reality, but there are plenty of other times when it is not clear at all. Is it a dream, is it his imagination, or is it real? It seems the filmmaker is playing with our confusion; after all, isn’t our own reality a part of our own making and our own perspective? Especially, especially, especially, in romantic relationships. How many times have two people from a former couple given wildly different accounts of the same events? Yet for each, they are real. Often, love is so overpowering and overwhelming and caught up in projections and misconceptions that you cannot know what’s really happening. This film attempts to recreate that mood; that’s why there’s so much confusion.
Toward the end of the film there is a scene where Stephanie is waiting in a bar for Stephane to meet her for a date. But Stephane is convinced that she is not there and has stood him up. We see both versions; but how can they both be real? There is another scene where the company Stephane works for is throwing a celebration for him on the release of his disaster calendar. This is presented in a realistic, straight-forward manner, but the idea is so absurd, you think it must be in his imagination. Yet it is not in the style of his daydreams, so you are left wondering, did it really happen?
But in the end, that’s really not the right question—it’s irrelevant. It happened in Stephane’s head and, at least as far as this movie is concerned, that’s all the matters. The film is a psychological portrait of Stephane, from the inside. If you like interesting characters, particularly flawed ones, this is a movie worth watching. It paints a picture and a mood and is a work of art to enjoy.