Mrs. Miroux: “So, what did you think?”
Stephanie: “I adore it!”
Mrs. Miroux: “Really? I’ve always found it rather strange.”
Stephanie: “That’s what’s good.”
DIRECTED BY: Michel Gondry
FEATURING: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg,
PLOT: Stephane is a young artist and inventor from Mexico, a man who has always had trouble distinguishing dreams from waking life; he is lured to Paris by his mother with the promise of a “creative” job that turns out to be a position as a typesetter at a company that makes nudie calendars. He slowly falls in love with his next door neighbor Stephanie, who is also a creative type, an amateur composer and toy designer. Their developing relationship becomes complicated and eventually melancholy because Stephane can’t tell if Stephanie returns his affections; whenever he meets her, he can’t even be sure if it’s in a dream or reality.
- The Science of Sleep was Michel Gondry’s feature fiction followup to 2004’s Certified Weird Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was Gondry’s first feature screenplay.
- Gondry stated that the character of Stephane was about 80% based on himself (the other 20% coming from Gael García Bernal’s interpretation of the character). Many of the dreams depicted in the film came from Gondry’s own dreams; the scene where Stephane has giant, cartoon-like hands came from a recurring nightmare the director had as a child. In the commentary on the DVD Gondry also implies that the romantic trauma Stephane goes through in the script was inspired by a real life unrequited love. Gondry also filmed the picture in the house he grew up in a s a child.
- The director said in an interview that he got some of the inspiration for the film’s look from Communist propaganda films aimed at children.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The two would-be lovers on a gray felt horse with button eyes in a white boat with a forest inside, sailing off on a cellophane sea.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Science of Sleep is nearly a straight shot of surrealism masquerading as a romantic comedy, under the cover of dreams. In this movie, it’s the reality-sequences that interrupt and inform the dream narrative, not the other way around.
Original trailer for The Science of Sleep
COMMENTS: In the very first scene of The Science of Sleep, Stephane’s subconscious, broadcasting a variety show for an audience of one from a studio built from egg cartons shot with cameras made from discarded cardboard boxes, does a cooking segment where it describes its recipe for dreams. It explains that “a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day… mixed with some memories from the past… Love, friendships, relationships, all those ‘ships’, together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw…” From the subconscious’ viewpoint, as from the artist’s, the function of everyday reality is to provide the raw materials from which dreams are built. But as free as they seem, the capacity of the dreams (and art) to break the boundaries of reality is an illusion; dreams can’t make new worlds, they can only jumble up and reconfigure into new forms things that have been seen and heard and felt by the conscious mind. The dream is imprisoned in bars formed from the limited experiences and memories of its host, and the light that streams through them is shaded by his desires and fears.
We start The Science of Sleep in Stephane’s subconscious, and we almost never leave it; when we do, it’s not for very long. Because we see the movie almost entirely from Stephane’s point of view, and because he struggles to distinguish his dreams from his waking life, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust that what appears to happen to him actually happens to him. The movie contains three types of scenes: those that are clearly dreams, those that appear to take place in the real world until some magical element crops up that cast doubt on their wakefulness, and the rarest scenes of all, the ones that document events that unquestionably do happen outside Stephane’s head. We’ll deal with that last category first, because these scenes gather the ingredients from which the subjective dream recipe is concocted.
Information about Stephane’s real life is sparse, but here’s what we can definitively ascertain from the scenes with no magical or impossible elements in them. The sensitive, sleepy man child has moved from Mexico to Paris at the request of his French mother (Miou-Miou), who has promised him a creative job is waiting for him. The work turns out to be as a typesetter for a company that makes calendars. He meets his French coworkers, including Guy (Alain Chabat), who initially mocks him for his hope to publish a “Disasterology” calendar he has painted commemorating a new calamity each month but later becomes an ally, and Martine, a busty, bespectacled office mate who will appear as a sex symbol in his dreams. (The office scenes are shot with handheld cameras, a documentary-style technique meant to reinforce their reality). A girl named Stephanie moves in next door; he meets her and her pretty friend Zoe when he accidentally hurts his hand helping the movers try to corral a piano that is about to escape from them on the spiral staircase. Later, as he is dreaming, Stephane writes his neighbor a letter asking for Zoe’s phone number, then slips it under her door while sleepwalking; when he awakens he realizes what he has done and retrieves the note with a coat hanger. He spends some time hanging out at Stephanie’s apartment, and goes out drinking one night with her and Zoe and Guy. Later, he sneaks into her apartment and steals a gray felt horse so that he can install a motor in the toy to impress her. His employer decides to publish his “Disasterology” calendar, and it’s an unexpected hit; the company throws a celebration party, but a despairing Stephane nearly drinks himself into a coma as he watches Stephanie flirt with a man there. (If not for the handheld camera and lack of any giveaway magical realist devices, I would assume this sequence was a fantasy of Stephane’s, because the idea of an art calendar commemorating famines and airplane crashes becoming a huge popular success is so unlikely). As romance fails to flourish between them, Stephane becomes angry and forces an argument with Stephanie, but relents when she agrees to meet him for a coffee date. He believes that she has stood him up for the date and bangs his head against her door in anger. Finally, he decides to return to Mexico.
When the story is stripped to its verifiable, objective elements, Stephane seems to be little more than a mentally ill man obsessed with a friendly neighbor, whose behavior verges on stalking. The viewer never knows for sure if Stephanie returns Stephane’s feelings, though she clearly values his friendship. There is a second level of the film, however; one seen through Stephane’s eyes that lies somewhere between the waking and the dreaming world. Most of Stephane and Stephanie’s interactions take place in this in-between realm. The two connect in this world, but the intrusion of magical, dreamlike elements constantly undercut our belief in the reality of this connection. Stephane visits her and the two plan to animate a diorama of a boat together; they’re thrilled at their shared creativity. But when she turns on the water faucet streams of cellophane spurt out, and when she throws cotton balls in the air Stephane is able to make them hover by playing a particular chord on the piano. At another point the two seem to be having a normal conversation for an extended period until Stephane shows her his latest invention, a time machine that allows the user to travel exactly one second back or forward in time—and it works. Stephanie forgives the romantic dreamer for breaking into her apartment and stealing the horse because he actually does install a motor in the toy that makes it move. But when we see the stop-motion animated results, they’re impossible, pretermechanical; the horse cavorts like a children’s cartoon, its movements are neither robotic nor natural, and it even trots across the piano and pecks out a little tune with its rear hoof. In the final scene, Stephane is saying goodbye as he leaves for Mexico; things seem normal, except that their conversation shifts gears from hostile to heartfelt to playful at the blink of an eye. Also, a cigarette thrown out the window lights a man on the street below on fire, and the two douse him with a bucket of cellophane (which reverts to water). It ends with Stephane, who is due to catch his plane, falling asleep in her bed and dreaming of them riding off together on the toy horse.
It seems that we can trust the basic dynamic of their relationship in these shared scenes, but we also know that Stephane’s dream world constantly crosses his brain barrier. On faulty evidence, he believes that she can share in his dreams, but can she really? And even in this twilight place between dreaming and waking, she never tells him straightforwardly that she loves him. If levitating cotton balls with your piano skills can’t win a girl’s heart, it’s likely nothing ever will.
If the romantic narrative is uncertain, lacking in mutual passion and, despite the pleasantness of leads Bernal and Gainsboug and some heart-tugging imagery, ultimately unsatisfying, then at least there are the frequent sequences set entirely in dreamscapes to fascinate us. Gondry is fluent in the language of dreams, handling their subtle shifts with playful pacing and just the right degree of surprise. He creates a consistent look for the dreams; they’re stop-motion animated and made out of cardboard, crepe paper and other craft-and-hobby materials. At one point, Stephane dreams a teeming city constructed out of toilet paper rolls. The high artificiality of the low budget techniques gives Stephane’s subconscious an otherworldly credibility and eccentric heart missing in the too-realistic CGI spaces of mainstream dream movies like Inception. His stream-of-consciousness technique links one flighty idea to the next with a pseudological flow, and he remains true to the dream recipe laid out in the prologue: random thoughts mixed with reminiscences of the day and personal preoccupations.
Take the first extended dream sequence after the introduction, a dream Stephane has the night after he takes the job at the calendar company. The boss had complained about his stubble, so that evening he shaved with an electric razor. The blades pinched him and he threw down the buzzing appliance in anger, startled by a few dying quivers it gave when he thought it was unplugged. That night, he dreams he is at work trying to glue tiny pieces of paper onto a calendar template, but his hands are too big to handle the delicate work. His coworkers mull around him making indistinct buzzing noises (Stephane’s French is not good and he has trouble understanding the Parisian natives when they speak to him). His hands grow to a gargantuan size; he uses them to bat his fellow wage slaves about. He bursts in on his new boss in his office; he’s sitting behind his desk with the female employee Martine on his lap. Outside the window a skyline of cardboard skyscrapers bend and bow. The electric razor is suddenly buzzing in Stephane’s hand; startled, he throws it in the direction of his superior, and the machine sprouts hairy spider legs. The boss falls down and the razor crawls over his face, making him grow a shaggy beard and long gray mane. The old man jumps out of the office window but lands safely on the ground, where he grabs a shopping cart full of trash bags and presumably starts a new life as a street person. Back in the office Stephane rummages through the desk and finds his calendar; he rips out the oversized paintings one by one and tosses them to a smiling Martine to hang on the office walls. He grabs her and throws her on the photocopier where they have brief, fully clothed sex before he follows the boss’ example and throws himself out the window, where he swims through the night sky over a Paris where Chichen Itza has replaced the Eiffel Tower, before waking up to his alarm. It’s the first of many admirable, inventive dream dishes that showcase a hearty emotional reality seasoned with just the right measure of spicy impossibility.
The dreams are whimsical and fun, which is necessary because the theme—the impossibility of knowing for sure whether the person you love loves you back—is depressing, in a commonplace sort of way. Stephane’s dreams interfere with his ability to read the already complicated signals Stephanie is sending him, but that drastic inability to tell reality from reality colored by anxiety and desire is a distorted mirror of an everyday romantic courtship. Early in a relationship, at least, we all have doubts as to whether the object of our affections feels the same way about us as we do about them. With Stephane, the doubts simmering in him grow to the point where they start to boil him from the inside out. This is where the movie fails: Stephane is too weak, too pathetic for the audience to root for. He whimpers out his need for love, passing the boundary of “sensitive guy in touch with his feelings” into the realm of infantile wimp. “You need to toughen up a little,” Stephanie admonishes him at one point. “It’s not attractive for a girl to see a guy cry.” In what may well be a dream (at the very least, he isn’t awake to hear it) she tells him, “Things will turn out the way you want, if you can just stop doubting I love you.” Later she advises him, “You have a serious problem of distorting reality. You could sleep with the entire planet and still feel rejected.” But Stephane cannot take her advice; he’s all subconscious, and has no way of consciously controlling his self-doubt. He dreams that she has broken their date, and gets angry at her without even checking to see if she showed up. In the end, he lies in bed, sniveling pathetically, begging her to just stroke his hair; but she refuses.
It seems as if we are being asked to admire Stephane’s perverse candor in openly displaying his weakness and neediness, but it’s presented as a curse, something he can’t control, not as an emotional honesty that hides a paradoxical strength. If Bernal is Gondry’s alter-ego here, then there’s a good degree of off-putting self-loathing in this self-portrait. There’s a ton of imagination but not an ounce of strength in Stephane. (Compare spineless Stephane to Joel in Gondry’s previous effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; at heart, Jim Carrey’s character just as internalized and neurotic, but we can get behind him because he makes one difficult and courageous choice to fight for a doomed love). By any measure except his dreams, Stephane loses the girl; and not only does he lose the girl, but he deserves to lose the girl. He proves himself unlovable, just as he always believed deep down in his core. In reality, a man like Stephane would be unable of having a relationship; his condition makes him completely unreliable. He can’t hold down a job because he sleeps through the morning, dreaming he’s at work and believing it to be true. A real woman might be intrigued by such a man as a curiosity, but would never be attracted to him. As a romance, The Science of Sleep only works because Bernal’s combination of swarthy good looks and boyish charm is irresistible. A woman may allow herself to be enchanted by the delicate, emotionally childlike character on the screen, but in reality few could muster the patience and indulgence Stephanie shows him.
It’s odd that Gondry, who had directed his previous two features from scripts by Charlie Kaufman and wanted to get out of shadow of the award winning screenwriter and prove himself more than just a technician who fulfills others’ visions, chose to debut with a romance that plays out largely inside the head of its protagonist: it seems like a blatant attempt to remind audiences of his previous success with Eternal Sunshine. Gondry can’t come up with a fascinating conceit like the memory-erasure procedure, or write a script with the twists, emotional depth and propulsive energy of Sunshine, but he can play to his strengths and focus on the visual flair he developed as an innovative director of music videos for the likes of Bjork and The White Stripes. If Gondry can’t out-write Kaufman, he can at least try to out-weird him; to make a movie stuffed with all the delicious hallucinations that he couldn’t shoehorn into Sunshine due to the elaborate plot requirements. So, we get a movie filled with delightful visions: abstract spin art patterns as we transition into the dream state, self-typing typewriters, talk shows from the subconscious, a band singing a torchy love song reluctantly dressed as kitty-cats, toys that come to life, kitschy crepe paper vistas stretching out to the horizon of the mind’s eye. From the aesthetic viewpoint, the romantic core of the movie is a subplot, something that exists to mainly supply the symbols that get mixed up and regurgitated in dreams; the movie can be a joy when it goes into full-on fantasy mode. With all it’s faults, The Science of Sleep proves that Michel Gondry is one of our premier dreamsmiths.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“There are no big, profound statements here about romance and fidelity, nor is there the huge emotional punch of Sunshine, but it’s enough to ensure that the film is more than just an exercise in weirdness. That said, if cinematic weirdness is your bread and butter, The Science of Sleep is a feast for the imagination and a triumph of creativity—the kind of movie that’ll lift your spirits and make you think even while it’s rotting your teeth.”–John Hurst, Christianity Today (contemporaneous)
“The surrealism is lightweight confetti; the plot, what little there is, meanders; and the actors have little of importance to say or do… in the end the movie is neither very cerebral nor very charming but more like weird and wayward.”–John J. Puccio, DVDTown (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: La Ciencia del Sueño – Neither the English distributor (Warner Brothers) nor the French distributor saw fit to renew The Science of Sleep‘s official website after the DVD was released, but this Spanish language site remains active, although it contains only the trailer, a synopsis and a small image gallery
IMDB LINK: The Science of Sleep (2006)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Will it De Blend ? – extremely odd, short promo for the movie (YouTube)
La science des rêves (The Science of Sleep) – this director-file.com page is the next best thing to an active official site; it contains reviews, links, behind the scenes images, and old news items
Behind the Camera: In Conversation with Michel Gondry – andpop’s Eric Emin Wood provides the most thorough online Gondry interview about Science of Sleep
‘Science of Sleep’ Straddles a Dreaming Life: NPR – National Public Radio’s Bob Mondello’s audio review of The Science of Sleep
MySpace – The Science of Sleep – this official (?) page has not been updated, and many of the links and images are broken or missing
The Science of Sleep – a livejournal sponsored community that was closed soon after the movie’s release; it contains updates on the movie and shared communal dreams
Berlinale, Day 3, Part 2: Gondry’s dreams wow Berlin – this report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on the Berlin Film Festival contains quotes from star Bernal and director Gondry about the film
DVD INFO: The Warner Home Video release (buy) has a satisfying level of extras, starting with a commentary track featuring director Gondry, stars Bernal and Gainsbourg, and minor actor Sacha Bourdo (who played the role of co-worker Serge). It’s revealed that the director and the stars disagree on whether Stephanie loves Stephane back, and sometimes debate whether a given scene occurs in reality or in a dream (most of the time Gondry is open to their different interpretations, only occasionally insisting that he intended the scene to be read in a particular way). There’s also the theatrical trailer, a 40 minute “making of” featurette, and an 11 minute profile of Lauri Faggioni, a prop designer who made many of the stuffed animals and other objects brought to life by the animators for the dream sequences. Filling out the disc are two odd extras promoting cat adoption and hosted by perky Linda Serbu, who runs a feline rescue operation called “Hollywood Kitty.” She’s pretty, vivacious and sincerely devoted to the cause, but after listening to her for just a minute even the most devoted cat lover will want to slap her in the face if she says the word “kitty” one more time. As much as I hate to get catty, I have to wonder just who Linda slept with to get these two unrelated extras slapped onto the disc.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Kristin,” who called it “an extra weird movie from Michel Gondry.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)