Art imitates life, waking or otherwise

by Kaori Shoji

Wildly creative film director Michel Gondry unveils the delightful oddity of his inner selfin his latest movie, ‘The Science of Sleep’

To filmmaker Michel Gondry, dreams and memories matter more than facts, politics and the innumerable realities that make up daily life. His third feature film, “The Science of Sleep,” proves as much — it is almost autobiographical.

In the film, he boldly parades before the audience all the things that are dear or fearful to him, against the backdrop of his own particularly quirky inner landscape. “I am not a political man by nature,” Gondry said during an interview in Tokyo while in Japan for the French Film Festival in March. “But I think I became even less political with this film. It is, after all, practically a story about my interior life.”

Neither Gondry’s interior life nor his outward appearance seem overly political. Slim, light-haired and soft-spoken, he seems much more fragile and young than you’d expect from a man in his mid-40s. He’s also sensitive — when the photographer began clicking off shots, Gondry turned pale and asked him to stop as the sound disturbed him. He can get artistically petulant — just before the interview, he disappeared from the hotel to “go for a walk” and didn’t return for an hour, thus throwing the rest of the day’s schedule into chaos. Somehow, you’d expect nothing less from the French visualmeister, whose command of his material — whether it’s video projects with Bjork, those slow-motion sequences in 1999′s “The Matrix” or the much-acclaimed film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) for which he won an Academy Award for screenwriting — is absolute and stunning.

Why must such a person have to stick to conventional rules of behavior? “I needed to get some air and rest,” he explained sweetly when he finally showed up, and he left it at that. Originally slated as a one-on-one interview, The Japan Times slot with Gondry was quickly pushed to a group session shared with other members of the press. No one had the privilege of getting Gondry alone that afternoon, but the general feeling was one of gratitude to share time with him at all.

The parallels between Gondry’s life and “The Science of Sleep” are apparent from the very first word he utters. Gondry likes to speak in English when dealing with non-French media, even though there are clearly moments of frustration when the exact word or phrase escapes him. “Stephane (the protagonist of his movie) is the same way. He struggles with three languages: the Spanish he spoke with his father; the French he forgot since leaving France, and which is therefore not quite sufficient for his needs; and the English that he speaks with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg; his neighbor and love interest). For both of them, English is not their native language, and talking together sometimes leads to misunderstandings or anxiety.” Gondry says this is part of what makes their relationship special: “That strong need to communicate is always there, more strongly than with a couple who share the same language.”

The clawing frustration of a failure to communicate is one of the undercurrents of “The Science of Sleep.” It is one of the reasons Stephane prefers to live out his love relationship inside the wacky, artsy-craftsy world of his dreams. Interestingly, he and Stephanie do not resort to such modern messaging tools as mobile phones and computers, though many of their problems, it seems, could be resolved with a little keyboard effort. Gondry laughs and says: “It’s true, there are no cellphones or e-mail between them. I didn’t want to introduce these things because they would have altered the texture of the movie. I think, too, that we rely too much on phones and computers in our relationships. I think we have to be careful about such things because they’re so easy and so quick. I remember once a friend of mine who was so angry at something her boyfriend had done that she spent an hour writing a very angry text message on her cellphone. Her fingers were flying all over the keys. And she showed it to me and asked what I thought, and I told her to wait until the next day before pressing the send button. Because messages are such powerful things, they are so immediate.”

Yet, Gondry admits that recently he conducted a breakup entirely via phone calls and e-mail, something he had never done before. “I never saw her face-to-face before we officially ended it. It was a strange sensation for me.”

Perhaps, such perils of distance were the reason Gondry gave Stephane the advantage of living right next door to the girl he’s obsessed with — and the ability to sneak into her room when she’s out and tinker with one of her stuffed animals, in an attempt to win her affections. “This is a very personal movie for me. Everything about it has a special, personal significance. Stephane and Stephanie’s apartment building for example, is the one where my ex-girlfriend and our son lived (in fact, they live there still), two floors up from the rooms where we shot the movie. Stephane’s bed was modeled after the one I had in my own childhood, and the decor in his room resembles my son’s room when he was very little.”

“Science” is so intensely personal that Gondry chose not to work with regular screenplay collaborator Charlie Kaufman. “I didn’t want to have to explain things or have long discussions. I wanted to realize the images crashing around in my head as soon as possible.” In that way, Gondry resembles his protagonist, who also likes to work alone from the pictures in his brain. Like Stephane, Gondry admits he had been “shy and awkward, not knowing how to behave around girls” and often said the wrong things. “I suppose that with this movie I wanted to forgive myself a little. You know, all the mistakes I had made and things like that. I do think it worked, but my worry was Gael (Garcia Bernal). I was sure I wanted him for this role and no one else, but he was far too cheerful and handsome to play someone like Stephane. When I was writing the screenplay, I was hung up about how people would view Stephane and, by implication, myself, but Gael did a wonderful job. His Stephane is strange and not easy to understand but ultimately very likable.”

It’s Stephane’s penchant for sleeping and dreaming that defines “Science.” What is it exactly about dreams and sleep that intrigues Gondry? “I was interested in the way pieces of everyday occurrences, or bits of disconnected images, emotions and conversations would make their way into dreams. Here was a totally irrational world, one that went beyond logic and still held so much mystery. The workings of the human brain fascinate me, in that respect. I don’t know why . . . and as a filmmaker, it’s always fun to work with dreams because I can incorporate animation, CG and different materials. The shooting of the film took seven weeks, but I used another 2 1/2 months just for the dream sequences. I used 35-mm film to get that particular, crafted feel.”

Hallmarks of Gondry’s low-tech approach are draped everywhere in the film, but the “crafted” feeling he achieves is neither meant to evoke nostalgia nor a certain period in history. “I especially wanted to stress things like scissors, cardboard and glue — all the things, in fact, that I had worked with 25 years ago. Like Stephane, I worked for a calendar company at one time, and in those days much of the work was done with such materials. But this is not a period story, so I didn’t want it to be nostalgic. It was made to evoke certain emotions — not necessarily of the past.”

Gondry adds, with a chuckle of mock self-deprecation, that he would like the women in the audience to go away full of “kind feelings” for him. “You know, feel sorry for me that I was so shy!”

Did the end product satisfy his standards of filmmaking? “I myself didn’t know how this was going to turn out, which is how I kept my interest in the project going. I wanted to surprise myself. With this work, I wanted to delve into my own brain and see what I would find there . . . and yes . . . I don’t think I was disappointed.”

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