The oddly bright imagination of Michel Gondry.
Michel Gondry is always trying to make his own pop song, yet film is his medium of choice. That explains the strangeness of Gondry’s sprightly yet sad new movie, The Science of Sleep. It expresses a screwed-up young man’s romantic passion. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) wants to escape the influence of his mother (played by ’70s French nonconformist icon Miou-Miou), find his own place in the world by relocating from South America to Paris and fall in love (with Stephanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). His failure should turn the film into a tragedy because Stephane folds up inside his own ego. But The Science of Sleep is a pop tragedy; it makes innermost human foible ebullient.
Recalling “La Lettre,” the quirky, melancholy short about unrequited love available on Gondry’s Director’s Label DVD, The Science of Sleep articulates common young adult emotional dilemmas (the same troubles muttered and palsied in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation). For Gondry the impulse is so intense that Stephane feels isolated, even though everyone around him (including his oddball colleagues toiling in the basement of a bank) knows some version of the same plaint. Despite this dark realization, The Science of Sleep is fingerpaint- and construction paper-bright. It has a pop song’s adolescent, pre-verbal, amorous drive.
Stephane’s subconscious reflects the modern condition of lonely, fragmented spiritual lives. Gondry presents it as a media-saturated nerdscape like Wayne’s World—or, more seriously, Rupert Pupkin’s maladjusted life in The King of Comedy. Stephane imagines broadcasting from his own TV studio—not for fame; rather, his fears loom in paranoid, closed-circuit transmissions. These visions are as scary as they are sweet—poignantly homespun, pervy yet common. He simply wants a girl to share his imagination. Stephane geekily describes love as “parallel synchronized randomness” and Gondry visualizes this cute/crazy theory as playhouse hallucinations. They give comic texture to Stephane’s tormented daily life. (Interestingly, Gondry intuits Stephane’s dislocation as a culture-wide problem: when Stephane dumps a TV set in a river, the infernal thing floats—a disturbing, ineradicable image.)
With childlike innocence, Gondry shows that Stephane needs to use his imagination in order to communicate and love. This goes beyond the boho solipsism in Andrew Bujalski films. Gondry reconnects moviegoers to the anxiety of socializing—the reasons we pine for a love of our own. I can’t think of another film that made the pain of relationships such a vivid daytime nightmare. Patient viewers will take Gondry’s movie to heart and keep it there, because its truth, though shamefaced, is revelatory.
Although lead actor Bernal is appropriately boyish, he’s a charmless fellow, carrying the stench of his preceding bad movies. But there is genuine charm in how Gondry presents Stephane’s neuroses. Gondry’s methods boast the fingerprint authenticity of personal fantasy through objects made with wood, cardboard and felt (recalling the puppet show in Being John Malkovich). One of Gondry’s finest images is an animated patchwork blanket that depicts Stephane and Stephanie’s tryst via cartoon figures moving among the squares. It’s handmade cinema “magic” worthy of the French avant garde and more imaginative than the anime in A Scanner Darkly. It proves conceptual filmmaker Matthew Barney was right to insist on pure art filmmaking in his own work, but Gondry still has the common touch. (Stephane is obsessed with the equally dexterous Stephanie: “I love her cuz she makes things. It’s as if her synapses were directly connected to her fingers.”) These days, given the (ironic) dumbing-down of technologically advanced digital-cinema, few films can equal Gondry’s homespun craft.
Gondry is a legitimate heir of both garage rock and the French avant-garde. But that 1920s movement is not so remote from contemporary awareness as the lack of arts education in contemporary schools would lead you to think. Gondry’s music videos and films show his ease with the cut-and-past, DIY ingenuity of kindergarten, art school, primitive art, bohemia and PeeWee’s Playhouse. He’s what Tim Burton would be if Burton had never bonded with monster movies or gone Hollywood.
The Science of Sleep has a comparatively unfettered flow and surrealistic warp that Eternal Sunshine only suggested. It’s full of confessional paradoxes like a great pop song, with The Rolling Stones bragging “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping” and Scritti Politti confessing, “No one understands me like you.” Gondry has made a startling film about a love-sick isolate whose desires are locked in his own head.