Early in Michel Gondry’s new film, The Science of Sleep, lead character Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is joyfully recounting a concert he attended with his beloved dad. He’s awed as Duke Ellington comes out on stage, resplendent in a white suit.
“Then I realize…this is not Duke Ellington. This is Duck
Ellington. I say, ‘Dad! This is Duck Ellington!” Pause. “‘I’m sorry, Dad; you’re dead. You lost the battle to cancer’.”
This is just one of many sequences flowing out from “Stephane TV,” a show filmed every night of Stephane’s life in a tiny studio constructed mostly of cardboard and tape, where the cameras are assembled from cardboard boxes. The English title of Gondry’s film is not quite accurate; in French it’s “The Science of Dreams” (though there’s no science involved in either case) and Stephane is an avid dreamer who never knows whether his experiences at any moment are real or something else entirely. His mother (Miou-Miou) tells a friend, “Since he was six, he has inverted dreams and reality.” Not so much inverted as muddled together, and a great deal of this film takes place in the dreamscape of Stephane TV.
Hearing this, the hearts of Michel Gondry fans leap for joy. Gondry has made a few feature-length films, most notably his 2004 collaboration with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But where he really blooms is in the narrower confines of music videos and short films, which marry a guileless, childlike sensibility to eye-popping surreal effects. (Buy, rent, or borrow The Work of Director Michel Gondry, which gathers 27 music videos and various shorts, most of which are appropriate for children.) The idea of a full-length movie written as well as directed by Gondry, and which has dreams as its subject matter, sounds like a feast.
Those high expectations are more than fulfilled; the screen is nearly always filled with something playful and delightful to watch, both live action and charmingly old-fashioned stop-motion sequences (none of that phony CGI, which here would be too literal). But since this is not a music video, and Gondry has to fill 105 minutes, there’s a plot as well. It’s not a bad plot (and it’s certainly not a dark plot; comparisons to Eternal Sunshine or Waking Life are off-base), but a couple of inherent problems make the story harder to appreciate than it ought to be.
One is that Gondry launches us into this intermittently dreamy tale without tipping us off as to whether a given scene is real or not. That’s understandable, but the problem is that when you suspect something is dream sequence, you don’t take the trouble to record it in the “relevant facts” department of your movie-watching brain. You just let it wash over you, enjoying the ride. If you make that choice mistakenly, you can miss important information.
For example, I was fooled early on by a scene at Stephane’s new workplace. When it begins Stephane’s new boss, a middle-aged, graying guy in a suit, is inexplicably wearing Stephane’s whimsical knit cap. He introduces the man and woman who also work in the office as “a couple of fags.” He uses crude language, twitches, giggles, and plays air guitar. He informs Stephane that the new job consists of gluing company names on bulk-order calendars, and we see that the company name being applied that day is “Nada-tec.” Stephane presents his portfolio of paintings, which he thinks should be used for a calendar instead: for every day of the month, he’s made a huge, primary-colored, kindergarten-style painting of a great disaster, like the July crash of Flight 800. Stephane calls the topic “Disasterology,” which prompts his boss to laugh and ridicule him.
Oh, I don’t know, sounds like it would be safe to assume this is a dream sequence, don’t you think? Especially because it is immediately preceded by a scene of Stephane in bed at his apartment at night, falling asleep. It wasn’t till we’d returned to this office a couple more times in the movie that I realized I should have been paying a different kind of attention in that early scene, and put the whole thing in the “relevant facts” file.
Not till halfway through the movie did I encounter a scene where I felt sure I could tell real from dream. All the surreality is fun to watch, of course, but it inevitably makes it harder for the viewer to grasp which the puzzle pieces are meant to be retained when following the plot.
The simple plot involves Stephane beginning to fall for his next-door neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Bernal is a terrifically handsome man, but Gainsbourg is not shown here as a particularly attractive girl — she’s skinny, with lank hair and an overbite. Her friend Zoe (Emma De Caune) is the looker, and Stephane begins by trying to find a way to get Zoe’s phone number. But gradually he realizes that Stephanie is more like him. She makes cloth animals and other art from yarn and twigs and felt, while Stephane invents things like a machine that allows you to move one second backward or forward in time, and a pair of glasses that allow you to see the world in 3-D. (Stephanie: “Isn’t the world already in 3-D?” Stephane: “No…yeah…but, c’mon.”) It’s a daring choice to make the female romantic lead something other than a sexpot, and contributes to the tenderness of the story.
There’s a further element that I grasped only when looking back from near the end of the film: There are clues that Stephane is what they now call “developmentally delayed,” replacing earlier euphemisms like “special” and “retarded.” Stephane is not merely reality-confused, he’s sweetly naïve. When he meets an old acquaintance who hasn’t seen him since he was a child, she tells him, “Look at you; you’re almost a man,” even though Stephane is in his late 20’s. Stephane eventually asks Stephanie if she will marry him “when we’re both 17.” And in an early speech Stephane refers to “something special…I mean retarded.” When Stephanie asks about Stephane’s bruised forehead, “How’s your head?,” he replies: “It’s OK. It never will be normal.”
In a self-interview on Stephane TV, he answers a question about the secret of his success by saying, “I think people empathize with me because they can tell I have a good heart.” It’s true. As it all came together at the end it becomes clear what a touching story this is — a very tender story of unlikely, and perhaps impossible, love. It ends at just the right ambivalent moment. The whole story blooms in retrospect, but I think it could have been even more enjoyable if it were a little easier to follow as it goes along.
– Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.