The Science of Sleep

Studio: Warner Independent Pictures and Gaumont
Written and Directed by: Michel Gondry; Starring: Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou and Emma de Caunes

Sep 22, 2006 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


There’s a scene in Michel Gondry’s new film, The Science of Sleep, in which Stephane (played by Gael García Bernal) makes clouds of cotton suspend in mid-air by finding the right chords on a broken piano, much to the delight of his new friend Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It is a moment of fantasy, but it couldn’t be more real for the two characters sharing it. In life, such feats are not possible, but relationships between two people are capable of a similar magic, which can be short-lived when feelings are involved that go unrequited.


The Science of Sleep is a familiar story told extraordinarily. It is a comic romance-fantasy, and though it has the visual flair and sense of invention that Gondry has become known for as the creator of countless memorable music videos and commercials (the Lego-inspired clip for The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” comes to mind), underneath is a well-observed character study that lends for a deceptively heartfelt work, one based largely on Gondry’s personal experience.


We see the movie through the eyes of Stephane, a young artist and inventor whose dreams have inverted with his reality since he was a boy. After the death of his father in Mexico, Stephane’s French-born mother (Miou-Miou) persuades him to leave the country and return to his childhood home in Paris, promising him a creative job at a calendar printing company. He agrees to stay and live in the family’s old apartment, where meets Stephanie, a neighbor moving in across the hall. When Stephanie’s friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes) mistakes Stephane for an injured piano mover, she invites him into Stephanie’s apartment to tend to his wounded hand. Stephane is attracted to Zoe, but something in the way he looks at Stephanie suggests he is intrigued by her, even if he isn’t sure why. She is pretty, but not exactly outgoing like the flirtatious Zoe.


At the workplace, Stephane is dismayed to learn that his new job involves no creativity, but he meets an ally, the oft-crude but altogether self-respecting Guy (Alain Chabat), who introduces him to their nebbish co-worker Serge (Sacha Bourdo) and the gawky but inexplicably sexy Martine (Aurélia Petit). Their boss is the well-intending but out-of-touch Mr. Pouchet (Pierre Vaneck), who wants no part of Stephane’s idea for a calendar celebrating human disasters. Can you blame him?


At night, when Stephane dreams, he is the star of “Stephane TV,” where his subconscious comes to life in a way only a visionary like Gondry could conceive. Locations familiarized in earlier scenes are turned upside down and, through the window of Mr. Pouchet’s office, where Stephane has taken command of operations, we witness shape-shifting animated backdrops that inspire both awe and terror. Characters grow abnormally large hands and talk as if they’re players in a dubbed martial arts film. Wind blows ominously while people, places, and events conspire in ways only possible in the subconscious mind. In achieving such a surreal landscape, Gondry’s methods vary from blue screen photography, to stop-motion animation, to sheer trickery, while materials range from cardboard tubing, to cellophane, to pieces of cotton that are meant to suggest bath bubbles.


Though there have been many famous dreamscapes in cinema history: Salvador Dali’s nightmarish world of floating eyes and faceless men in tuxedos in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and the elaborately choreographed and highly stylized dream sequence in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, to name a few, Gondry and his cinematographer, Jean-Louis Bompoint, and his production designers, Pierre Pell and Stephane Rozenbaum, have achieved a kind of naturalism rarely seen in such representations. You sense the pageantry of the thing, and yet, it’s as if they were able to put a camera in someone’s mind and press the record button.


During one of these episodes, Stephane sleepwalks nude over to Stephanie’s apartment and puts a letter under her door, which reads, “I am just your neighbor and a liar. By the way, do you have Zoe’s number?” Puzzled by the correspondence, and perhaps moved to guard her feelings, she only can offer her friendship when Stephane later admits to having feelings for her. He accepts reluctantly, despite his wounded pride.


In forging their shaky and somewhat tense relationship, Stephane suggests the two collaborate on a stop-motion animation project, as the two share a love for handcrafting whimsical objects. During their encounters, Gondry further dazzles us with his creativity, at one point introducing Stephane’s one-second time machine, a handheld device that he builds for Stephanie, enabling them to travel back and forth through time by one second.

Not surprisingly, Stephane’s feelings for Stephanie grow deeper, as he goes to great lengths to impress her, though she is somewhat troubled by his bizarre antics and flimsy grasp of reality. Meanwhile, his unrequited desires serve to exacerbate his nightly delusions, which continue to spill into his waking life. While the film continually shifts between Stephane’s imagined world, the charmed world he shares with Stephanie and their reality, it becomes clear that, of the two, only Stephanie has the ability to tell the realms apart.


For all the practical advice Stephane receives from Guy, his love for Stephanie has become a slippery slope. Yes, she is beautiful, but she also is interesting, says Stephane. His love for her is not something he simply can get over, nor is it something that will ever be fulfilled. The question becomes how far will Stephane go before hitting rock bottom.

Benal, who possesses a rare combination of chiseled features, boyish awkwardness and comedic ability, wears his character’s contradictions well. He embodies someone whose bids for affection are often cringe-worthy and yet altogether understandable. Gainsbourg, for her part, is nothing short of perfect. She is beautiful but unassumingly so; her subtle physical flaws add to her charm. She is at once mysterious and inviting, and near the end you sense her character struggling to maintain some level of respect for Stephane, even as his inappropriate words and behavior become increasingly difficult to tolerate.


Gondry, much like he did with 2004’s Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shows considerable command over a complex sequence of events, and his ability to illustrate motivation and instill both naturalistic humor and drama amid the zaniness of the action is nothing short of masterful. Of Eternal Sunshine, film critic Roger Ebert observed that its insight “is that, at the end of the day, our memories are all we really have, and when they're gone, we're gone.” In a sense, Gondry points that logic in another direction with The Science of Sleep. If our memories make us who we are, then our dreams not only can represent who we want to be, but also can serve as refuge when life becomes too real.

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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Fire science
September 14th 2009
3:48am

Who designed Stephanie’s Jacket in science of sleep and where can I get a similar coat?
Science of Sleep is a movie and her military jacket is cute

Charlotte
July 7th 2010
10:33am

Ohhhh yes I want to know it as well. It’s so pretty! I wan’t to have one like that as well!