Animation is one of the very few mediums that can really connect your brain to the outside world.
—Michel Gondry, Res magazine (July/August 2006)
Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) remembers his recently deceased father as a guest on his own imaginary talk show. Make that, imaginary as recalled through a filter of childhood desire. The set is made of cardboard and egg cartons, the mod ‘70s-style logo proclaiming “Stéphane TV.” A TV screen in the back shows Stéphane pounding away on his drum kit or a fanciful drawing of two brains, with animated arrows indicating their possible connections. The host stands before you, cooking, promising to show “how dreams are prepared,” using “love, friendships, relationships, and all those ships.” When, during the interview segment his father begins to speak, Stéphane cuts him off. “I’m sorry dad, but you’re dead. You lost the battle to cancer.” The son realizes the danger: “In dreams, emotions are overwhelming.” And then some.
The Science of Sleep doesn’t tell a story so much as it unravels. A journey through a young man’s dreams and desires, it’s at once lyrical, strange, and resistant to interpretation. While this antic structure will frustrate some viewers, it is also enchanting and challenging, coalesced into a movie that takes a mature, complex perspective on childish behavior and the culture that encourages it.
Stéphane is at once aware of his dreams and, increasingly, unable to differentiate between realms. Following his father’s death, he travels from Mexico to Paris, where he means to sort through his family’s old apartment and more generally “help” his mother, Christine (Miou-Miou). This rummaging brings back memories of his childhood, which Stéphane tends to arrange and then rearrange in his own ways, and in his mind. Stéphane, you see, is “creative.” Though Christine observes that he has trouble confusing dreams with reality, he perceives a continuum, where his view of the world becomes reality.
Stéphane imagines himself an artist, his conventionally immature drawings - two-dimensional, brightly colored, awkward shapes that only approximate material objects—designating his limited perspective. When Christine arranges a job at a company that makes naked-girl calendars, Stéphane arrives with his own designs for the 12 months, a series of drawings of disasters (a Mexican earthquake in September 1985, the loss of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996), for, as he puts it, “Each month has its own most disastrous event.” His invention of “disasterology,” much like his personal-history-as-talk-show, suggests that he’s suffering from a peculiar mental or emotional illness. But The Sciences of Sleep doesn’t diagnose his raptures. Instead, it observes Stéphane’s rummaging, as if waiting for a revelation. None emerges.
Stéphane’s own “disaster” in the making concerns his crush on his new neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), also artistically inclined. She makes dioramas with cellophane seas and cotton ball clouds, and oh yes, she’s a composer, notes her best friend and fellow art supplies store employee Zoé (Emma de Caunes), which would seem to make her the ideal match for Stéphane (not to mention their matching names). He thinks so, anyway, and begins to conjure ways to impress her, inventing toys and making art that might appeal to her imagination as much as they do to his. Though she’s mostly a function of Stéphane’s dreams, sleeping and waking (peered at through his apartment door peephole, all wide-angle-distorted as she looks back, not quite sure if he sees her), Stéphanie is also her own self, glimpsed occasionally apart from Stéphane, living an existence he can’t know.
At first, Stéphane is charming, if plainly odd. He stops by Stéphanie’s apartment to offer up a pair of 3D glasses, so “You can see real life in 3D.” She looks skeptical: “Isn’t life already in 3D?” Well, he looks momentarily baffled that she’s not going along: “Yeah, but, come on.” Play with me, he seems to say. Walk this way.
It’s frequently an appealing way. Written and directed by the ever inventive Michel Gondry, The Science of Sleep is a gorgeous, weird, mesmeric movie, with adorable animated reveries to represent Stéphane’s subjective state. These images—including a patchwork horse, collapsing buildings, outsized rubber hands, and a giant typewriter—eventually overtake the film entirely. And so they should: Stéphane’s daily activities are dauntingly dull. At the office, they do a lot of Xeroxing (metaphorical and literal), his coworkers crack sex jokes, and, in his mind, engage in ridiculous, uncomfortable, immaturely structured sexual activities. While these fantasies usually involve the lone, conveniently buxom woman Martine (Aurélia Petit), they reveal Stéphane’s simultaneous longing for and repulsion by sex as a concept. Bodies pressed together, thrusting and aggressing: it’s an image that frightens him but he wants it anyway. He believes sex is a form of romance, in turn a form of connection and communion, but maybe it’s only scary. Maybe it’s one of those “ships” that collide, that comprise disaster.
And so Stéphane starts working through the possibilities for connections, coming up with a theory he calls PSR, “Parallel Synchronized Randomness,” meaning that he and his fellow communer, say, Stéphanie, share a wavelength, understand one another without having to work at it, face consequences, or even share material space. In his dreams, she’s perfect. In his dreams of her dreams, he’s perfect.
Increasingly, Stéphanie is put off by her suitor’s seemingly incoherent action. One of his forays toward her front door leaves him literally damaged—he bangs his head on her door and bleeds, rather profusely. When Stéphanie discovers him, she tends to his injury, but has to wonder at his inability to care for himself. While she’s alternately bemused and bothered by his antics, she remains the object of his yearning, never quite wanting for herself. And so she’s in a place much like yours, unable to identify with Stéphane, who is sweet but also difficult, unable or unwilling to adjust his view of the world in order to accommodate those around him.
But if he is disquieting as a fiction, the movie’s exploration of his individual psyche is endlessly fascinating. It doesn’t come together in a pat resolution, but rather opens out into more possibilities. This makes the adventure more audacious, and, if you’re inclined, more enthralling.