How can a film as witty and imaginative as “The Science of Sleep” be so unsatisfying? It’s filled with laugh-out-loud moments and quotable dialogue, while Gondry’s low-tech evocation of its protagonist’s dreamworld is spectacular. In the end, all this adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. It’s visually amazing but emotionally tone-deaf. Far more than in his documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” which is largely devoted to music, Gondry’s roots as a music video director are visible here. “The Science of Sleep” is filled with concepts that would be dazzling—if they only lasted for three minutes.
“The Science of Sleep” is Gondry’s fourth feature and third narrative film. Even so, it seems like a second debut in many respects. It’s the first time he’s turned to fiction without the aid of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Their first collaboration, “Human Nature,” was mediocre, but their second one, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” was one of the best films of the past few years. Gondry’s also working in his native France for the first time, although his lead actor is Mexican and at least 90% of the dialogue in “The Science of Sleep” is in English. While “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” Americanized the avant sci-fi of Alain Resnais’ “Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime,” Gondry’s sensibility in “The Science of Sleep” reflects a cross-national twee aesthetic represented at its best by Wes Anderson and its worst by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
After the death of his father, Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) has moved to Paris at his mother’s (Miou-Miou) urging. She promises him a creative, artistic job at a company that makes calendars. The results turn out to be less than what he expected. His work consists of gluing paper to calendars, rather than drawing or designing a new line. His idea for a series of disaster-oriented calendars goes nowhere. His coworkers are a strange bunch, especially Guy (Alain Chabat), who constantly makes crass jokes and sexual references. In his dreams, Stephane has his own TV show, filmed in a studio made from cardboard, egg cartons, and a shower curtain. There, he’s an expert on the science of dreams. In the real world, he’s no expert on anything, and his problems with love crop up when he tries to woo neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She finds him weird and thinks he’s too disconnected from reality.
“The Science of Sleep” does a terrific job of depicting Stephane’s fantasy world, but it fails to deliver the counterpoint of reality. Even under the guise of absurdism, Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for “Being John Malkovich,” directed by Spike Jonze, managed to convey the misery of a bad job. “The Science of Sleep” devotes about a minute to showing how boring Stephane’s job is, then shows off his coworkers’ wackiness at much greater length. The production designers were equally imaginative in creating the “Stephane TV” dream studio and the real clutter of Stephane and Stephanie’s apartments. For one to feel Stephane’s reality is becoming increasingly contaminated by his dreams, the two would have to be far more distinct than they ever are in “The Science of Sleep.”
Garcia Bernal’s performance is truly charming, recalling Jean-Pierre Leaud’s work as François Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel in “Stolen Kisses” and “Bed and Board.” Stephane seems both enthusiastic about life and more than a little lost. One can picture him aging into the depressed man played by Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” There, Gondry and Kaufman found a mature perspective on a man who was still acting like a boy on the cusp of middle age. Here, Gondry’s point-of-view on Stephane is almost celebratory. The director seems to view him as an alter ego, but while Gondry creates a world to share with an audience, Stephane creates one in his head—at most, Stephane attempts to share it with Stephanie. “The Science of Sleep” tries to sing the glories of imagination while presenting a character whose dreams make him nearly psychotic. It’s a fine line to walk, and Gondry isn’t a subtle enough filmmaker to do it.
The director quotes his own work frequently in “The Science of Sleep.” According to MTV News, it started out as a feature-length version of a video for the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” Gondry’s video for the White Stripes’ “The Denial Twist,” which creates a twisted, surreal world out of the band’s appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” was clearly one of the key inspirations for “Stephane TV.”
“The Science of Sleep” is the most personal film Gondry has made so far, but its failures suggest that he benefits from either working in short bursts or collaborating with others. Still, it’s better to suffer from an overflow of undisciplined inspiration than from too little.