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The Science of Sleep (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 21, 2023


Starring Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou, Pierre Vaneck, Emma de Caunes, Aurélia Pettit, Sacha Bourdo, Stéphane Metzger, Decourt Moyen, Inigo Lezzi, Jean-Michel Bernard, Yvette Petit and Eric Mariotto.

Screenplay by Michel Gondry.

Directed by Michel Gondry.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. 105 minutes. Rated R.

French director Michel Gondry seems to be staking out a spot as the cinematic chronicler of the fugue dream state. This seemed to have been fully explored in his amazing last film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but here, with his return to his native France, he shows the ideas can still go in different, fascinating directions.

To be completely honest, The Science of Sleep is not as good a film as Eternal Sunshine. It misses the cracked sensibilities of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

However, the subconscious is a pretty big place, and this movie exerts a wonderful fascination.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stéphane, a Mexican-born Frenchman who returns to his Paris childhood home after years away. He fancies himself an artist, so his mother collects a favor and gets him a job in a printing shop which seems like a Gallic version of Dunder Mifflin from The Office, he is surrounded by misfits and bureaucratic red-tape and soul-crushing artistic disappointments (the bosses are horrified by his idea for a calendar celebrating some of the great tragedies of modern times).

When he sleeps, though, Stéphane is host of his own cheesy talk show about his life. Through it he can relive, reconsider and change his own life. However, the line is quickly blurred and soon Stéphane is not sure what is dream and what is real.

This casual disorientation suffuses the film – even on the simplest levels. For example, the dialogue casually and regularly shifts between English, French and Spanish with little apparent rhyme or reason.

Things change for him when two young women move into the apartment across the hall. For some reason, Stéphane lies to them and tells them he lives about 15 minutes away. (Why? Who knows?) He immediately falls for Zoë (Emma de Caunes), the flashier, more outgoing, more obviously sexy one.

We know, of course, his real soulmate is her best friend, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and not just because of their conveniently matching names. Stéphanie is also artistic, beautiful, eccentric, and just a little bit wifty. It takes Stéphane a little while to realize this connection, and then he has to do a lot of backtracking to get Stéphanie to think she isn't second choice, and he isn't a creepy stalker.

Of course, the plot of The Science of Sleep is really beside the point. The movie really comes alive in the dream sequences, with the shifting backgrounds, the giant hands, the cotton clouds, the running toy horses, the pirate ships and swirling plasticine water.

In the end, it is a little hard to say what exactly The Science of Sleep is about. That's kind of a nice problem, though. In a world where films all too often celebrate mediocrity, it is nice to find a movie which has completely original ideas. (9/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: August 7, 2006.


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