How exactly could such as astoundingly well-crafted and adventurous vision like The Science of Sleep end up the throwaway curiosity that it is? To be sure, there's no lack of effort from writer/director Michel Gondry
, ringleader of this particular reality-blurring carnival, who brings to bear all of his singular skills at drawing dreamscapes disturbingly close to the frame of our everyday lives. His well-directed cast fling themselves right into the mix, going at their roles with enthusiastic abandon. The story is a delightful fantasia about a young man (grown-up boy, really) whose dream-life flows over into his waking hours -- in which he's smitten with his friendly but romantically distant next-door neighbor -- a problem that he doesn't seem to even to consider a problem. But the film's wild images and sense of fun are fleeting at best, and start to leak away the second the credits begin to roll.
After scoring so perfectly with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and its follow-up, Dave Chappelle's Block Party
, it was maybe inevitable that Gondry was going to slip up, and this film is that slip-up. Firstly, it's hard to shake the feeling that the scraps of story that leak out around the visuals are not much more than leftover ideas from Eternal Sunshine, further notes on the fantastic. As Stephane, the neurotic star of his own dream-TV show, Stephane TV, Gael García Bernal
uses that slightly blank charisma of his to singular effect. Though Gondry takes awhile to lay his cards down on this character, leaving audiences not entirely sure whether to view Stephane as an innocent dreamer or immature creep, it's hard not to warm to Bernal's enthusiasm -- even he did put it to better use in The King
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Much screen time in The Science of Sleep is spent inside Stephane's dreaming mind, a joyously weird wonderland built from jerry-rigged materials, where cars are made of cardboard tubing and water built of cellophane -- it's as though the world had been recreated by a sixth-grade crafts class with a lot of time on its hands and a deep supply closet. Unlike most artists who attempt to capture the world of dreams by filling them with easily recognizable symbols and heavily symbolic storylines, Gondry is amazingly able to hold true to the illogic of dreams. Items from Stephane's waking life are scattered throughout the dreams, but never in a portentous manner, they're just raw material that help juice along his feverishly detailed scenarios.
The problems come when Stephane wakes, or at least seems to. Just moved back into his childhood Paris apartment -- his mom's the landlord -- Stephane develops a crush on the girl next door, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg
). She's a beanpole artist of similarly fanciful temperament who isn't quite able to reciprocate Stephane's childish and easily-crushed infatuation. Another strike against Stephane is his (and often the audience's) inability to figure out whether he's awake or dreaming, the lines between the two worlds having been erased by Gondry, bit by bit. The last third of the film deals almost entirely with Stephane and Stephanie's melodramatic relationship, skipping out unfortunately on the film's most enjoyable segments, when Stephane is surrounded by his bickering co-workers at his office job -- all of them, especially the wonderfully profane Alain Chabat
, help keep the film from drifting off on its cloud of whimsy.
The Science of Sleep doesn't cohere too well in the end, being a free-flowing lollapalooza of realistic dreams and strange reality where the audience rarely knows where they stand, further undermined by Gondry's decision to have the cast speak in a mesh of French, Spanish, and English. This in itself wouldn't keep the film from succeeding, but Gondry seems to spend more time on the texture of Stephane's interior world than the vicissitudes of his actual existence, especially the fitful romance with Stephanie, which is resolved in a quite clumsy fashion. It makes one sad, however, because one thing is utterly clear after seeing this film, if there are any more Dr. Seuss or Maurice Sendak films in production without directors, Gondry is the first one they should call.