Gondry’s previous full length features ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ were written by Charlie Kaufman, whose slightly off-kilter approach complemented Gondry’s own off the wall ideas perfectly. However Gondry’s talents as a visual artist were compromised by the fact that he was working within Hollywood where non-traditional ideas about plot and narrative are tolerated, but less accepted when it comes to the visual aspects of film. As a music promo maker for the likes of Bjork, Gondry was able to let his imagination run loose; yet his previous films were overshadowed by Kaufman’s name on the credits and the demands of the studio to deliver a standard mid-sized budget picture. Gondry’s own creative input was minimal. His latest film is a more personal work. Working from his own script and given full creative control, ‘The Science of Sleep’ looks terrific, incorporating animation that Yuri Norstein and Jan Svenkmajer would have approved of, within a largely live action setting. Those familiar with Gondry’s music videos will recognise many aspects of them in this film, most notably the large hands that Gael Garcia Bernal has in one memorable dream sequence, which featured in ‘Everlong’ by The Foo Fighters.
Bernal is Stéphane, a half Mexican, half French man who returns to Paris as his mother has set up a job for him as an illustrator. Looking through his childhood belongings, we see signs of a young man who was an imaginative child; his head somewhat in the clouds. Stéphane appears to have a condition whereby dreams and reality become merged and impossible to differentiate. This provides a great deal of humour, most notably when he dreams that he wrote a letter whilst in the bath to his neighbour Stéphanie, and then mailed it, which of course he genuinely did, whilst completely naked. Stéphanie is Stéphane’s soulmate. Equally eccentric, she’s also a dreamer, collecting and making horses out of felt. Naturally their courtship is anything but simple. Stéphanie believes that Stéphane is really interested in her more glamorous and outgoing friend Zoe, and he struggles to convince her that it is her that he is more attracted to. At the same time, because Stéphane struggles to tell the difference between what is real and what is a dream, he fails to be able to tell whether she is interested in him as well. This often makes his behaviour erratic, and he often becomes angry with her for apparently leading him on. It’s hard to retain sympathy with Bernal’s character when he rather unfairly takes his frustrations out on her. Still Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stéphanie equip themselves in their roles, even if their protracted courtship is slightly long winded and ultimately difficult to completely care about.
The supporting characters are also peculiar in their ways, just as much so as Stéphane and Stéphanie in fact. Stéphane’s colleagues include the sex obsessed Guy who bullies the long suffering Serge, and Martine who Guy wants to set Stéphane up with. These characters also feature in Stéphane’s dreams, which often accentuate his anxieties about Stéphanie and his job (which he finds hopelessly mundane). As already mentioned ‘The Science of Sleep’ has its share of laughs, which include Bernal affecting a punk look, penis jokes slightly more sophisticated than usual, and Serge being dumped into a bin by Guy. Juvenile jokes for sure, but Stéphane’s world is like that dreamed up by a child. Even if the narrative falls away somewhat, the look of the film stuns; whether it be seas created from blue and white sweet wrappers to resemble those from Eastern European animations, and felt covered real life sized horses as ridden by Stéphane and Stéphanie into the sunset at the film’s climax. Let’s hope that Gondry continues to explore his fertile imagination for future projects and allows his makes a name for himself in his own right, rather than someone who just directs the work of others.