Film weaves between dreams & reality

But Michel Gondry’s new film, The Science of Sleep, fails to match Eternal Sunshine

Gondry brings his visual sensibility from music videos—including Radiohead’s “Knives Out”—to the big screen.
Gondry brings his visual sensibility from music videos—including Radiohead’s “Knives Out”—to the big screen.
Bernal’s believable performance helps anchor the film.
Bernal’s believable performance helps anchor the film.
Photo courtesy of Outnowich

Film Review: The Science of Sleep @ The Screening Room

Once upon a time, films made by music video directors were easily dismissed. Emerging from a world of glorified commercials, these self-styled filmmakers’ technically ambitious work often lacked any resonance beyond pure spectacle.

However, this trend has changed in recent years. Talented directors have begun using the music video medium as a way of experimenting with film grammar to prepare for a feature-length debut. One of the most important figures to emerge from this world is French director Michel Gondry. Best known for his frequent collaborations with Bjork (“Human Behaviour”) and The White Stripes (“Fell in Love With a Girl”), Gondry has essentially been producing experimental films in the guise of music videos for years. His videos toy with film form in a way rarely seen outside of art galleries, and he has recently made the transition to feature films with spectacular results.

Collaborating with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Gondry made the absurdist comedy in 2001 and the mind-bending romantic comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. While the former film is underrated and uneven, the latter piece is undeniably successful and seems to improve with each viewing. Eternal Sunshine’s undeniable success created a great deal of excitement and anticipation for Gondry’s third movie, The Science of Sleep. Sadly, it’s no Eternal Sunshine, but it’s still a wonderfully eccentric and unique film, worthy of consideration.

Working without Kaufman for the first time, Gondry wrote the screenplay for The Science of Sleep himself. This was probably a mistake. Gondry may be a visual and conceptual genius, but he is not a particularly gifted writer. As a result, the script lacks the careful plotting and narrative cohesion that made his last film so impressive.

The movie stars Gael García Bernal (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mamá También) as a young Mexican artist who moves into his mother’s apartment in Paris after his father dies. Promised a creative position at a calendar company that will give him the opportunity to express himself, he is tricked into a mind-numbing job as a typesetter. Bernal’s character also has a significant psychological problem that affects his day-to-day life: he has trouble distinguishing between his dreams and reality. This becomes a significant obstacle as he attempts to woo the attractive girl who moves in across the hall.

In essence, the movie falls into the arty romantic comedy subgenre that has become somewhat popular lately with movies such as and any of Zach Braff’s frustratingly overrated work. Like those movies, the narrative crux of The Science of Sleep may be a conventional love story, but the presentation is surprisingly experimental. Unfolding from the point of view of Bernal’s character, the movie weaves in and out of dreams, fantasies and reality. Because the protagonist can’t distinguish between the real and the imagined, neither can the audience. Every scene has the potential to suddenly become an elaborate fantasy or a crushing reality.

The fantasy/reality game that Gondry plays works well, allowing him to deconstruct the romantic comedy genre in a manner similar to Eternal Sunshine.

The dream sequences are beautifully conceived and executed: full cityscapes are made of discarded cardboard and toilet rolls, characters swim through clouds and inanimate objects come to life. In contrast, the reality sequences are presented through handheld cameras and stark visuals.

The entire cast gives very honest and convincing performances in these scenes. Bernal’s work is particularly strong, enabling him to believably jump back and forth between the film’s two worlds.

Problems arise when the blurring of fantasy and reality becomes too extreme. While Gondry obviously wants this distinction to be unclear, the film can get quite confusing. To make matters worse, the characters speak to each other in both English and French, and it’s difficult to predict which language will be spoken from one scene to the next. The effect is disorienting—as it was surely intended to be—but in a film that is already challenging to follow, it seems especially unnecessary.

On a scene-by-scene basis, The Science of Sleep is impressive, but it doesn’t hold together as well as it should. Gondry is guilty of self-indulgence: he has constructed a puzzle to which only he knows the solution.

While ambiguity can be a welcome element in any film, The Science of Sleep requires more focus. It is by no means a failure—in fact, it is probably still one of the most interesting films of the year—but it doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations Eternal Sunshine fans have placed on it.

Gondry has the talent to be a great director, so hopefully The Science of Sleep will eventually be seen as a curious experiment in a more consistently impressive body of work.

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