Snooze Alarm

Washington City Paper | September 22, 2006
Dream logic and cinematic narrative are well-suited to one another, as the surrealists noticed back in the silent-film days. Far rarer are films about people who pretend to be dreaming—Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece, Céline and Julie Go Boating, is the supreme example—which is why it’s notable that The Science of Sleep opens with a sequence in which the film’s protagonist plays at creating a dream world. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) hosts a make-believe TV show in front of cameras made of cardboard and mixes up a formula for “dreams” that yields pink smoke. There’s much more such whimsy to come, but that moment sets the tone: This archly juvenile movie is nearly all pink smoke.

The Science of Sleep is the first solo turn for French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who previously directed two movies written by Charlie Kaufman, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s widely overrated scripts invariably get waylaid in the wormholes of their own convoluted plots, but their premises are promising and their asides amusing. Left to his own pretentious devices, Gondry doesn’t demonstrate even that sort of limited command of the ideas at play. His new film is so immature and self-indulgent as to suggest, alarmingly, that Stéphane is a self-portrait. Yet if some highly particular aspects of Stéphane’s existence must have come from Gondry’s own life, others clearly didn’t. And certain nonautobiographical aspects of the film—such as the fact that Stéphane is an English-speaking Mexican in Paris—could only derive from casting and marketing decisions.

The son of a Mexican man and a French woman, Stéphane was raised in Mexico by his father, who recently died. And so Stéphane moves to Paris, where his mother (Miou-Miou) has promised him a “creative” job. This turns out to be paste-up work for a calendar company, a glimmer of the director’s own graphic-arts background that’s one of several hints (another is Stéphane’s reddish-brown leisure suit) that the period is the recent past, probably the ’70s. Not that external historical markers matter very much: The bulk of the story transpires either in Stéphane’s mind or in his new apartment building, where he finds himself living across the hall from his childish female alter ego (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the bilingual daughter of a French man and an English woman, who at 35 seems too old for the part). She’s an art-store clerk named, of course, Stéphanie.

St-1 courts St-2 with games, toys, and crackpot inventions, including a machine that transports the user one second into the future. (For anyone trapped in a theater with The Science of Sleep, a time machine that jumps 90-minute increments would be more useful.) Despite his nursery-school worldview, St-1 occasionally blurts sexual come-ons that would be creepy in any context; these remarks repeatedly compel St-2 to pull away from St-1, even after he’s committed such purportedly charming acts as breaking into her apartment and motorizing her favorite toy pony. St-1’s dark side expresses itself in various forms, such as the calendar he designs that features illustrations of major disasters. His boss doesn’t want to produce the calendar but then does, and it becomes a hit. St-1’s twisted fantasy life, you see, has something to say to all of us.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t. Whether he’s being innocently babyish or inappropriately horny, Stéphane is a bore. Bernal does what he can with the one-note character, but his arrested development is neither engaging nor convincing. He exists only to allow Gondry to play his own childhood games with rudimentary special effects, employing stop-action animation and found-object collage. The film rebels against sleek computer-generated imagery with a junk-shop aesthetic that ranges from cellophane oceans to tossed-off new lyrics to the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” to, alas, the script. (This film is more proof that Bernal has the worst taste in screenplays of any currently hot actor.) The Science of Sleep is a retro-style animated short that somehow grew into a feature-length attempt to prove that Gondry could out-Kaufman his previous collaborator. That he does, in all the worst ways.

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