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‘The Science of Sleep’

An upended toy box of delicious eye candy and quirky romance

by Kaori Shoji

There’s something tread-mill repetitive about conventional on-screen romance. It seems as if we’ve seen phone-call/e-mail angst, candlelit dinners, fights, reconciliations and sex ad nauseum (and engaged in by the same beautiful people again and again). But Stephane (played by the always amazing Gael Garcia Bernal) evokes no weary deja vu in “The Science of Sleep.” When he likes a girl, he doesn’t express it through the usual channels. His approach is so strange, perverse and often irritating that it defies description. What’s more, his sincerity is foot-in- mouth dismal; in trying to commend the physical attributes of his love interest, he tells her: “I like your boobs. They’re friendly and unpretentious.”

“The Science of Sleep” is French music-vid virtuoso Michel Gondry’s third feature film (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was his last, preceded by “Human Nature”), and it is the first where he doesn’t collaborate with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. This is his film all the way, an intensely personal take on the way relationships, dreams and reveries all connect and/or tear away at each other, all without making much rational sense. For Gondry fans, “The Science of Sleep.” is a delight. They will immediately recognize some of his trademark visuals, like the kitschy, crafted props that adorn the frames and the seamless, seemingly effortless way he combines them with highly sophisticated graphic technique. To call “The Science of Sleep.” eye candy would be an understatement — it’s an upended toy box of faded colors, rusty handles and scraps of crepe paper remembered from childhood . . . and the fragments of dreams pursued in delicious, light sleep.

The Science of Sleep
Rating
Director Michel Gondry
Run Time 105 minutes
Language French and English

Indeed, sleep is one of the things Stephane does best. When he’s not sleeping, the world around him becomes flat-out dull or unexpectedly vicious. In any case, it’s always rife with let-down. Stephane has returned to his mother’s Parisian apartment after many years of living with his divorced father in Mexico. His dad had died of cancer and his mother (played by former French Lolita Miou-Miou, in a stroke of casting brilliance) had lured him back with promises of a “creative job” in a calendar company to suit his artistic temperament. He discovers, however, that this job consists of pasting together bits of paper in a basement, and when he tries to present to his boss his idea for a new calendar (called “Disastrology,” with each month represented by a historical disaster, like the TWA jet crash or Mexico City Earthquake), it’s dismissed with a sneer. So Stephane escapes into the world of dreams, to the extent that he doesn’t show up for work until well after lunch. The boundaries start to blur between reality, REM-sleep-induced fantasies (in one, he’s in the bathtub with a colleague, frolicking in a sea of cellophane and plastic bubbles) and his imaginary television show — “Stephane TV.” The last is pure, Made-in-Gondry: Stephane directs and stars in a studio padded with egg cartons and cardboard, and he talks into a camera colored with magic marker while the window behind him opens and morphs into a periwinkle Parisian sky pasted with cotton clouds.

So when the tall, graceful Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in next door, with an old piano and an array of handcrafted toys in tow, Stephane is overwhelmed and confused. At first, he’s attracted to her hottie girlfriend Zoe (Emma de Caunes) and asks Stephanie for her number; later, in his dreams, he realizes it’s Stephanie he wants, and he tries to rectify the situation by writing an explanatory letter and slipping it under her door. Five minutes later he panics and retrieves it with a coat hanger. Stephanie is calm and mature; she reads the letter, allows him to get it back and refrains from saying anything. Later, when Stephane finally works up the courage to articulate his feelings, somewhat, Stephanie informs him “I don’t need a boyfriend,” sending him further afield into dreamland, where he and Stephanie hold an impromptu wedding in a paper church. But Stephane isn’t exactly in despair — he’s obsessed with Stephanie without being attracted to her (“She looks too much like my father”), but her artistic, hand-crafted mode of existence (she likes making dioramas, paper projects and stuffed animal toys) strikes a definite chord. In one lovely segment, he tinkers with her stuffed toy pony (“He’s called Golden the Pony Boy”) so that it can move robotically. In another, he presents her with a time machine that can go back and forth one second in time. (“Convenient for sneaky kisses!”)

As much as “The Science of Sleep.” is Gondry’s film, it owes a lot to the performances of Bernal and Gainsbourg, who mute their dark, charismatic sexuality to turn up a guileless, childlike charm that warms the heart and ultimately breaks it. Gainsbourg is especially fragile as Stephanie, spending most of her screen time in an old sweater and jeans, her face completely devoid of makeup and hair unbrushed and stringy. Bernal, too, appears throughout in the same unresplendent brown suit he wears to the office, and which he only takes off when slipping into his little boy’s bed in his childhood bedroom (preserved all these years by his mother). The very un-gorgeousness of their demeanors recalls the kind of prickly, confused but incredibly free relationships we used to have at 10 or 11. You know, before adolescence, when sex intervenes, tips the scales and incarcerates romance (for better and worse) behind the bars of its gilded cage forever more.

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Art imitates life, waking or otherwise