In movies, sometimes weird is good, but it can just as frequently go horribly bad. Only a few talented filmmakers are able to walk this fine line with any kind of grace and civility, and director Michael Gondry has already proven himself by lensing a little-known Charlie Kaufman script called Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. For his narrative follow-up (he took a break to direct Dave Chappelle’s Block Party), Gondry pursued his own script about a young illustrator that often has trouble distinguishing his dreams from his reality.
Stephane (Gael García Bernal) is lured to Paris after the death of his Spanish father in order to be closer to his French mother. Stephane’s mother finds him a job at a calendar maker, but Stephane is crest fallen to learn that he will not be designing the calendars but simply putting them together. Stuck in a country that’s foreign to him doing a mind-numbing, completely uncreative, and unfulfilling job, Stephane finds comfort in his vivid fantasy world. Things begin to look up when the charming and beautiful Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in across the hall.
To Stephane’s surprise, Stephanie is also a highly creative individual and they strike up a friendship, but every one of his attempts to suggest the possibility of romance ends horribly.The Science of Sleep is a love story, but the twist is that the romance happens all in the hero’s head, while his attempts in the real world are often met with confusion or outrage. The thing that gnaws at you is that Stephane and Stephanie really are ideally suited for each other, but you see them struggle and you’re pulling for them, but there’s this nasty voice in the back of your head that says it isn’t meant to be.
Bernal is really good at playing Stephane’s eccentricities and setting up two distinct personalities in one character: the successful inner Stephane and the twitterpaited outer one.The added bonus is Gondry’s sense of whimsy, often realized with some brilliant stop-motion special effects. Beyond the look, Gondry’s talent is also in selling that whimsy; could you seriously envision a stationary company taking an idea for a “Disasterology”-themed calendar seriously? Keep in mind that the Disasterology calendar depicts a different famous disaster every month of the year.
Sometimes it feels as though Gondry goes too far with all of Stephane’s oddness and the movie often descends into confusion with his crazy lucid dreams that end up encroaching on his already scattershot grip on reality.The Science of Sleep has a great spirit, but it gets a little choppy near the end when it feels like we’re looking out through the shattered mirror of Stephane’s view of life. It’s bittersweet in a good way but I wish that Gondry had made things a little clearer in the reasons why things end the way they do. Any misgivings, however, are largely overshadowed by the fact that this is a beautifully shot and acted film.