In The Science of Sleep, young artist Stephane (Gael García Bernal) has difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality. He shares this problem with most other Gondry heroes, from Puff, the half-civilized ape man in Human Nature (2002), to the Gondrified versions of various rocks bands in his music videos, to, finally, Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), wandering through his own subconscious, trying to salvage memories of a soured love affair. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , sure to stand as one of this decade’s finest films, is the tough act the director must now follow.
Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, now on DVD, is a purer expression of his sensibility than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Human Nature, both of which gave screenwriter Charlie Kaufman equal input. This purity is a mixed blessing. Directing his own screenplay, Gondry is free. But you have to wonder, feeling a little unkind, how free-spirited someone can be to find shackles in a Kaufman script. Still, you may also identify with Gondry and his clear desire to handcraft his own odd stories, his own way.
Indeed, the director’s passion is in plain sight with The Science of Sleep. On the DVD’s making-of documentary, one of Gondry’s co-producers speaks of trying to avoid thinking of Stephane as the filmmaker’s alter ego; this problem may be familiar to Gondry’s fans watching his latest work. Stephane’s art (a calendar with a different drawing of a terrible disaster each month) and, er, other projects (a time machine that provides one second of instant rewinding) and his bonds with his new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), have the same cocktail of whimsy and darkness that makes the director’s output so memorable. Scenes of Stephane and Stephanie working and playing together will jump without warning into fantasy; they’ll turn on a water faucet, and out will pour crinkly cellophane, an archetypal Gondry image.
The Science of Sleep revels in blurriness; not just in the line between director and fictional character, but between people (witness the practically same-named Stephanie and Stephane), languages (listen to a Spanish actor speaking a mixture of French and English—guided, of course, by a French director), and, of course, between sleeping and waking, between living and dreaming. True to these messy ambitions, his film is sweet, heartbreaking, imaginative, and a touch overlong.
It also has surprising toughness in spots. Whereas some films might treat Stephane’s core inability to separate his dreams from his life as a sort of hallucinatory, existential, and/or philosophical situation, a la Waking Life (2001), The Science of Sleep acknowledges that, with Stephane, some degree of willful perversity is at work. As he fumbles his way through work and his relationship with Stephanie, Stephane can be sweet and childlike, but also petulant and possibly mentally disturbed. If this is a director’s self-portrait, it contains some stinging self-criticism, too.
True to his preference for imagery over strict explanation, Gondry never fully cops to how autobiographical his film is in the DVD’s special features. The 40-minute making-of segment is more like an actual documentary than the promo pieces that turn up on many DVDs, tracing the origins of the film’s story (tellingly, this involves tracing back to when Gondry decided to become an artist). It’s more revealing than the commentary track, featuring Gondry and several of the actors, which can be disorienting when combined with the multi-language, partly subtitled feature. Adding a layer of aural blurs does no favors to the film’s fragile loveliness.
Another featurette takes us inside the home and shop of Laurie Faggioni, an artist who assembles the film’s stuffed animals and assorted props (“creator of animals and accessories” is the DVD’s job description). The interview further explores the The Science of Sleep‘s fuzzy distinction between imagination, personality, and “real life”, as Faggioni notes that her creations never turn out the way she first pictures them in her head.
It’s also jarring to learn that Gondry himself didn’t, say, personally hand-stitch the stuffed horse featured so prominently throughout the film. Watching the feature, it’s easy to assume that his aesthetic, reliant on marvelously low-tech effects, is achieved entirely at his own hands. But Faggioni’s sweet neurosis complement Gondry, maybe something like the way Stephanie complements Stephane. And so maybe he isn’t telling only his own story, after all.