NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - As much as I'd like to devote a whole long post about Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (***½ out of ****)---which I was able to catch yesterday at the Princeton Garden Theater---I'm not really in much of an expansive-review mode. Yet at the same time to make no remark at all about this mostly remarkable new film would, I think, be close to criminal. Let me just offer a few brief comments here then.
For those who haven't heard about the film, The Science of Sleep basically weaves in and out of the reality of its main character, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), who toils at a crappy job and seems to spend the rest of his time dreaming about better things for himself: a better job, a more meaningful existence, and especially the affection of his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Stéphane, it must be said, isn't exactly the most appealing character you'll see in a movie this year. He's a sometimes-insufferable man-child who seems to have no mature emotional resources for dealing with problems in his life. At first, he seems like a charmingly shy, awkward fellow, but as the film goes on, the depths of his stunted growth pretty much glare straight at you even as you remain astonished by some of Gondry's startling visual coups: cities totally made out of clay, for instance, or a dream world that seems like something straight out of an Arthurian legend.
Whether you respond positively to Stéphane or find him excruciating, I suppose, will depend on personal taste. Still, I think it's fairly obvious that Gondry---who wrote and directed the film---doesn't entirely intend for us to be 100% charmed by Stéphane; I think a bit of both affection and revulsion is appropriate to the character. And the film seems to take a more complicated attitude toward dreamers than is at first apparent: Gondry understands Stéphane's need to escape from the drudgery of his ordinary life into the comfort of his dream world---at the very least, if Stéphane didn't feel the need to dream a lot, Gondry wouldn't have much of an opportunity to throw in dream sequence after astonishing dream sequence---but eventually, he seems to recognize that escaping into dreams is no way of facing real-life problems. And thus the film ends with Stéphane seeming like a bit of a loser---and yet, can't we all sometimes understand his need to escape this mortal coil, to escape our personal anxieties when they overwhelm us?
In the way this film touches upon universal human yearning, The Science of Sleep is very much a worthy companion piece of Gondry's previous feature, the great Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That said, if chosen to pick which of the two I'd prefer, I'd probably go pretty comfortably with the latter, with its best-so-far Charlie Kaufman script and a real emotional depth to support its reality-bending story and visuals. Whereas Eternal Sunshine seems to impart some genuine universal truths about the ecstasy and pain of modern romantic relationships, The Science of Sleep sometimes seems merely self-indulgent and solipsistic rather than inventive and wise. But I can't complain about such visual ingenuity, and such devotion to low-tech craft (Gondry charmingly uses stop-motion animation and paper cutouts; not much CGI here!). It may not quite have the cumulative emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine, but, in its own whimsical way, it's almost as awe-inspiring. I mean, where else---other than, I suppose, Gondry's previous music videos---will you find a film in which the water that comes out a faucet is made of cellophane, and where a mechanical horse skips around a room like something from a Ray Harryhausen picture?