Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Unfortunately for the movie reviewer, the adjectives which come to mind to describe “The Science of Sleep,” a film about a guy who has trouble distinguishing his dreams from reality are things like “odd,” “indie,” and “indescribable.” But we’ll give it a shot, and can safely say that fans of director/screenwriter Michel Gondry’s previous work (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) will like this movie a lot, and it may win him some new fans as well.
Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a young Mexican man who has come to Paris to live near his mother. She says he has always been a bit strange, but by this time we’ve already figured this out. Stephane’s dreams unfold before us, occasionally in a campy cooking show-like frame narrative hosted by Stephane himself, with vivid and surreal detail, often exploding into fanciful, beautifully handmade animation.
Stephane’s funniest dreams mostly concern his lousy job and lousier co-workers, but he soon encounters his beautiful and significantly named next door neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and begins a relationship with her which plays out partly in dreams and partly in reality. Sometimes we don’t quite know which is which, which is also Stephane’s problem, leading to some highly questionable decisions on his part.
This might sound complicated, but “The Science of Sleep,” like “Eternal Sunshine,” is a surprisingly emotional and character-driven work, always putting its heart before its head. Its head does seem like a fun-house of strange and poetic ideas (such as Stephane’s time machine which adds or subtracts exactly one second) which don’t exactly make sense, but are consistently delightful. Don’t try to make logical sense of it, that’s not the point. It also might be a somewhat frustrating experience.
The film is consistently wonderful to look at, from Stephane’s gadgets to Stephanie’s diorama of felt animals to Gondry’s own paper and cardboard animation. The dialogue is in a mix of French and English with some Spanish thrown in. The international cast sports a wide variety of accents, which never really interfere, particularly with Bernal’s energetic and wide-ranging performance. “The Science of Sleep” may not be a model of narrative coherence, but it is unique and idiosyncratic, which are perhaps rarer virtues.