Okay, Michel Gondry is one odd fucking duck. But he’s got to be one of my favorite odd ducks. As strange and bizarre as he is artistically, there’s this childlike innocence to it all, a sense of wonderment within every little quirky thing he creates. Unlike other dwellers on the fringe, like Lynch, Cronenberg, Jonze or Aronofsky, there’s no obsession with ugliness in his work, no attempts to provide imagery that will creep you out or disturb you. His work seems to entirely be about the joy of oddity, the sweetness of the strange. And there’s this overall theme of healing to his body of work, like a fractured psyche trying to put itself back together.
And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if Gondry were set loose to tell his own stories, look no further than The Science of Sleep. Truly the culmination of all of his work to date, Gondry mixes both the visual and psychological themes of all of his previous work into one definitive vision. This is the tale of a man trapped within the boundaries of his own dementia and trying desperately to communicate properly with the outside world.
And as strange as it is, it proves to be a beautiful little narrative. While the imagery is surreal, and the storytelling meant to keep you off balance, Gondry doesn’t pull any punches in fleshing out his characters or relating another tale of an unhealthy relationship. There are moments here when you realize that no matter how sweet his intentions, no matter how innocent he might be inside his own head, Gondry’s main character Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a very sick man. And that’s what’s so heartbreaking about this film. You want things to work out so badly, but Stephane clearly doesn’t live in the same world as the rest of us.
Bernal’s performance is absolutely top shelf. He manages both to convey a naÃ¯ve charm while seemingly portraying just how dangerous he is to himself and others. At times he seems truly baffled by how the world views him, as his perceptions are clearly different from those around him. Gondry shifts back and forth between giving us a birds eye view looking out from Stephane’s own head and from the outside looking in. The juxtaposition is startling, giving a frank and honest look at mental illness, no matter how soft and endearing that illness seems to be.
Gondry pulls out all of his visual tricks for this, crafting a beautiful dream world filled with stop motion, blue screen effects and camera tricks o’ plenty. The film opens with Gondry’s concept of what makes up a dream and from that point on you watch that theory put into motion. Artifacts, songs and phrases bleed over from Stephane’s daily life into his dreams and his dreams bleed back into reality, all of which is handled beautifully. Fans will recognize recurring themes and imagery from earlier efforts as if everything before was simply working up to this single opus.
The Science of Sleep is the very definition of an art film. It has something to say and says it in a truly original and unusual way.
But it’s not for everyone. While a great character piece and a pleasure to look at, this is a complex film that asks you to participate and piece it together. It’s not really much of a puzzler, but with something of an ambiguous ending, as well as scenes that you’re not quite sure really happened outside of Stephane’s dreamworld, it requires some work to put it all together. This definitely isn’t a film to just kick back and watch – it wants you to invest yourself in it.
Of course, the slightly more cynical will have a problem with the prevalent theme of the film, a theme very similar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. The why can’t someone just love me despite my faults and instability plea. This is one of those films that will be absolutely adored by the crowd that likes to go home and write in their journal while listening to Morrisey and will no doubt find itself as a cult fave for anyone who thinks of themselves as both different and artistic. Anyone easily bugged by this kind of mentality may find themselves turned off by the abundance of effort put towards trying to tell the story of this kind of character.
And the movie is a bit slow while never fully resolving itself. It definitely makes sense and makes for a great ‘over coffee’ post film discussion as to what happens next (which Gondry leaves for the audience to decide for themselves), but it might be a few minutes too short for those that like definitive resolution to their stories.
And lastly, the film is in English, French and Spanish, something that may throw some viewers off as, no matter what language they speak, they’re going to be reading subtitles out of the blue (certain scenes contain conversations speaking all three intermittently.) It’s a bit jarring, but something I found fascinating as it truly adds the feeling of being VERY European. Watching characters struggle with various languages trying to find a language the other speaks (usually English) makes for some interesting character moments. But if you have issues with subtitled films to begin with, this might add an extra layer of frustration. Although most of the film is actually in English.
All this aside, I absolutely loved the film. It was positively enchanting. Every moment we spend in Stephane’s dreamworld is pure cinematic bliss and watching how Gondry weaves in and out of it made for one of my favorite independent efforts of the year. Uniquely brilliant and something film lovers will treasure.
Highly recommended for anyone that loves Gondry’s work, enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or simply loves inventive independent film. Not recommended for anyone with issues with subtitles, who hate vague or ambiguous filmmaking or anyone who hated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. I know I will.