An adorable man-child of a stalker, but a stalker nonetheless, Gael García Bernal can't distinguish what's real in The Science of Sleep, or whether he's loved in return. In Michel Gondry's fantastically imagined world, there are many other slippery thresholds and valences. The dialogue shifts regularly among French, English, and Spanish, with plenty lost in translation. Bernal's artist character, Stephane, arrives in Paris both as a native and a foreigner (having sided with his Mexican father, now dead, following a divorce). He's simultaneously a mama's boy—she gets him a menial job and gives him the family apartment in a building they own, where he sleeps among his boyhood toys—and a somewhat truculent young man. And he spends most of the movie with a crush on a girl that's almost hostile. "Are you out of your mind?" demands Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the object of his obsession, who lives across the hall. Well, yes: half out of his conscious mind, half in dream, for the entirety of the film. Reality and unreality are painstakingly stitched together in Gondry's wondrously handmade universe (a children's pop-up book on the big screen), even if the cruel truth—that love can go unrequited—constantly threatens to slice them apart again.
The Science of Sleep Opens at Egyptian, Fri., Sept. 22. Rated R. 106 minutes.
Filled with his personal associations and touchstones (see interview below), Gondry's first effort as writer (after directing Charlie Kaufman scripts in Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) suggests all the dualities in its title. You've got science, the ruling physical laws of our waking lives, and sleep, that realm where emotion has its revenge on logic. In the morning, however, Stephane wakes up unsure of which is which and what actually transpired before. Did he actually rise from his bed to write a note to Stephanie, sleepwalk naked down the hall, and slip it under her door? And if so, how can he get it back?
Stephanie, meanwhile, has plenty of reservations about her puppyish love-struck neighbor. Though she's also a DIY spirit willing to collaborate on art projects—a horse made of felt, a forest in a boat, a waving, undulating city of cellophane and cardboard—she's more tethered to the real world, with friends and outside interests. A grown-up, in other words. Stephane can barely tolerate his day job (doing paste-up work for a calendar printer), and his co-workers and other frustrations populate the TV studio in his head, a kind of Pee-Wee's Playhouse with blue screens and cameras seemingly assembled by a 7-year-old out of the family recycling bin.
Although the movies are overfull with slackers and man-children who won't grow up (just see The Last Kiss for the most recent example), Science has an almost alarmingly literal take on the subject. Stephane could be diagnosed as regressive-aggressive in his desire to preserve his childish imagination. The tiny cars, retro clothes, and bizarrely inappropriate calendar of "disasterology" are presented as both a refuge and defense for the self-arrested artist. Science is like the most ornately embellished cardboard box fort ever erected on the living room carpet.
Yet its architect seems aware of those limitations. Stephane's behavior grows gradually more alarming to Stephanie and those of us watching. His fragile charm, his neediness, his creative self-absorption become overbearing. On the receiving end, Gainsbourg has to play straight to Bernal's eccentricity, but I—and I think Gondry—admire her more for it. She's got a woman's tired, practiced skill at putting up with excessive male attention, delicately deflecting his antic ardor. Stephane suffers from a kind of Tourette's syndrome of the imagination, while Stephanie is battered by his artistic blurts. (At one point he raves of her, "It's as if her synapses were married directly to her fingers." Try that as a pickup line.)
Because Gondry has based his story, somewhat self-incriminatingly, on a past relationship that never was, Science has a melancholy grounding beneath its frivolity. (Stephane's boss, played by French comic actor Alain Chabat, also helps considerably by lending crass yet sensible advice to his dream-dazed underling.) It makes for an unlikely comparison piece with Steve Martin's Shopgirl—the filmmaker working through a doomed romance, incorporating his girlfriend's actual art into the story, trying to find a resolution that wasn't possible in real life.
Eternal Sunshine was about heartache, too, and Science doesn't match that film's wiser perspective and polish; it embraces the escapist magic that Kaufman used only as a device toward truth. (Here, too, will be a good future Netflix double feature: You can debate whether Bernal has wacky Kate Winslet's part and Gainsbourg the mopey Jim Carrey's.) Still, you won't see a more unique or personal vision on-screen this year. Personally, I'm sorry if Gondry had his heart broken. As a filmgoer, however, I'm grateful he found someplace else to express that love.