Michel Gondry has finally made a movie that integrates music video with feature film. I don't mean that negatively; only that up until now, Gondry has wedged the absurdist, dream-like sensibilities he explored on MTV into films that had absurdist plots and were written by Charlie Kaufman to include strange, dream-like alternate realities. With Science of Sleep, the dream merges with reality without the clumsy explanation of some metaphysical breakdown required. I'm not entirely certain, by the end, what we're supposed to take away from the film, but it's a lovely exploration of a certain kind of love affair that exists too much, perhaps, in dreams.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane, a Mexican in France at the behest of his French mother but struggling with both his purpose there and the language. As a result, he frequently resorts to English, and it's lucky for us that the other characters all speak it, too. Garcia Bernal's English is great, and the play between the three languages is one of the pleasures of the light script (written by Gondry as well). Soon after arriving at his mother's empty flat, Stephanie moves in next door. Stephanie's friend Zoe helpfully points out that not only do they have the same name, but S&S are totally alike! For some reason, Stephane doesn't correct the girls' misapprehension that he's friends with the piano movers and does not reveal that he is, in fact, the son of the feared landlady. Thus begins a strange tale of a young man-boy who doesn't seem able to articulate what he wants or even figure out whether he's got it. Stephane never seems to know whether he is dreaming or not, and has wild fantasies that sometimes merge into reality without his knowledge. My slight discomfort with the film comes from not knowing whether we are supposed to find Stephane charmingly whimsical or think he should get some help. I think both are true, but I wondered sometimes what the film's position was.
Because Stephane definitely has a problem. His fantasies are amusing and creative and lead to fantastical inventions in his life and relationships. But the conflict between him and the object of his affection seems to be that he doesn't realize which actions are real and which aren't. He does things he later thinks were dreams. In one instance he stands the girl up because he... thinks she stood him up? For no reason? I don't even know.
Then again, this is a character I have met in real life. Stephane isn't unrealistic in his contradictions. But he is kind of a jerk sometimes. Garcia Bernal does fantastically with him, demonstrating yet again his versatility despite being very pretty. The other actors navigate the ups and downs of the script and language with charm and energy. Gondry fills Stephane's thoughts and dreams with fantastical figures made of cardboard, yarn and stop-motion techniques, some of which may look familiar from, say, a Foo Fighters video. And despite a suspicious poster in the theater which advised, “Close your eyes, Open your heart,” it's not a sappy romantic comedy where two crazy people find acceptance in each other's tenuous hold on reality, contrary to all considerations about how they might actually get on in the real world. The issue of Stephane's behavior is left open. In a fantastic world of imagination, there's a true story here about shy, creative people and how they relate to the world. It raises questions rather than conforms to romantic cliches; and in defying expectations somewhat raises my own in terms of how, and what kind of, difficult relationships are dealt with in the movies.