Stephane (Bernal) returns home to Paris and takes up a mundane job making corporate calendars. But it is only in his dreams that Stephane is able to escape the monotony and live a life he enjoys. When he falls for his neighbour across the hall, Stephanie (Gainsbourg), reality and dreams start to bleed into each other as he tries to seduce her.
Michel Gondry is a bit of an oddball, as anyone who’s seen any of his music video or movie output can attest. But the director of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is an oddball with boundless imagination and a lot of heart, and that’s frankly the best kind. Those who found Eternal Sunshine something of a brain-squeezer should be warned that that was rookie-level weirdness compared to this.
Like Eternal Sunshine, Science Of Sleep is, at its centre, a simple love story between a confident woman and a shy, awkward man. And where Sunshine used the tool of memory erasure to unspool the tangle of a dying relationship, Science jiggers around in the dreams of lovelorn Stephane (Bernal) to chronicle the birth of one. The dream sequences, which essentially become the film as the line between Stephane’s real and imagined life blurs the more his feelings deepen, are both a great strength and a weakness. When they work they are hilarious, weirdly insightful and brilliantly barking — witness a jam session with the band dressed in animal costumes, or a getaway in a cardboard car — but every so often a clunky one meanders in aimlessly and sends the film blearily toddling its way into experimental artsy-fartsiness. Gondry is not just a nutsophile, though. Underneath his Blue-Peter-presenter-with-a-budget stylings beats a big, unashamedly romantic heart, and it is this that makes the film work. For a director who initially seems to be all about the surface, Gondry has a delightful ability to make the tiniest moments of a relationship feel wholly real and intimate. The first encounter between Stephane and Stephanie plays out with clumsy small talk, but the connection between the two quietly crackles and grows throughout the film. Stephane doesn’t play in grand gestures, but small, often misguided, attempts at wooing. It’s his effort and enthusiasm in spite of his uselessness that makes the story so touching. There’s not the level of ambition shown in Eternal Sunshine, but that was largely a showcase for Charlie Kaufman’s best script to date. As a first project entirely of Gondry’s own making (he wrote the screenplay as well as directing), this shows his cracked mind is a rather beautiful place to be.
It suffers occasionally from self-consciousness and over-indulgence in its own oddity, but Gondrys grasp of emotion and visuals is enchanting. Even if he seems several sandwiches short of a picnic.