StÃ©phane and StÃ©phanie, the two eccentric waifs involved in "The Science of Sleep"‘s semi-romance, are played Gael GarcÃa Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, a pairing of immense cosmopolitan charm and attractiveness. That director Michel Gondry manages to make them seem wan and unappealing is remarkable â€” the film is a testament to the benefits of collaboration with others.
Gondry has proven himself capable of apparently infinite visual inventiveness in his earlier films and his often brilliant music videos, and "The Science of Sleep" overflows with unforgettable set pieces, most representing the dreams of StÃ©phane, who has trouble distinguishing between sleep and waking life. A paper city dances outside a window; a man’s hands grow larger and larger as he tries to put together a paste-up; a ski trail is knitted together out of yarn. These scenes are all the more amazing when one takes into account that the film was made for a reported $6 million â€” Gondry has managed to squeeze more visual jolts out of next to nothing than, say, Gore Verbinski did with the over $200 million he got to make some pirate flick.
It’s too bad the rest of the film is such a mess. The story is "The Science of Sleep" is, Gondry has said in interviews, an autobiographical one. The film is shot in the director’s old Parisian apartment and is loosely based around his days working a dreary job in a calendar company, and, perhaps to compensate for any potential egotism of such a conceit, Gondry has written his stand-in StÃ©phane as a man just barely short of batshit insane. StÃ©phane is lured to Paris from Mexico by his mother (Miou-Miou) after the death of his father. She’s set him up with a job he expects will be more creative than it turns out to be â€” no one appreciates his idea of a calendar of illustrated disasters, and he’s put to work doing layouts. Rather than fall back on the typical escapes most people turn to when confronted with a dull day job (heavy drinking, TV, a side project), StÃ©phane takes to romancing/stalking the girl next door, StÃ©phanie, a sweet if barely formed character who dabbles in music and animation and has seemingly infinite patience for neurotic and infuriating behavior.
When you tilt your head the right way, you can see the story Gondry probably intended, that of tentative love blooming between two prickly, quirky young people with rich inner lives. And there are moments of that, of shabby wonder that are downright magical, from a stop-motion mechanical horse galloping around the floor of StÃ©phanie’s apartment to StÃ©phane’s strangest invention, a time machine (made out of a Speak & Spell) that sends you back only one second. But, like StÃ©phane, the film can’t seem to get out of its own head, and it rambles along like a disjointed anecdote that makes more sense to the teller than the tellee. Why does StÃ©phane ram his head into the door? What the hell does StÃ©phanie want, anyway? Who let Gondry write the script for his next film, "Be Kind Rewind"? We have no doubt he’ll provide ample explanation on the eventual DVD commentary, but we’d be more inclined to rewatch the film with the sound off, all the better to enjoy the prettiness.
Opens in limited release today.
+ "The Science of Sleep" (Warner Independent)