Michel Gondry’s Science of ‘Sleep’walking

Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep wants to detail the tribulations of an artist’s turbulent mind but is more like the fantasies of a petulant little boy.

Director Michel Gondry has long made a career of re-hashing his particular brand of French surrealism. He’s given us many mildly interesting music videos (from such cutting-edge acts as The White Stripes and Bjork), as well as the intriguingly dreamlike features Human Nature (which is sorely underrated), and the surprisingly popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which Gondry somehow managed to take home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay). The biggest problem with being a whimsical man-child (which Gondry identifies with through his work) is that it permeates everything you create: every precious maneuver becomes repetitive, and every fantastical sequence becomes obnoxious.

Perhaps Gondry needs to step back and re-evaluate his stock style, as his current offering, The Science of Sleep, is merely another regurgitation of his boyhood dreams and fears. The director is searching for explanations that connect reality and dream life but only offers his own point of view (which is akin to a 13-year-old girl’s romantic sense of love and starry graphics – I half expected a parade of glittery unicorns to spring from someone’s imagination and begin a chorus line). Unfortunately, it’s the same point of view we have been “treated” to for years.

Centering on Stéphane (a multi-lingual, appealing Gael Garcia Bernal), The Science of Sleep wants to detail the tribulations of an artist’s turbulent mind but plays out more like the fantasies of a petulant little boy (this point is driven home by the fact that Stéphane actually sleeps in his boyhood bedroom – something I found singularly irritating and cutesy). In the world of Stéphane, spending so much time alone is detrimental, and everyday objects begin to animate themselves as shadows creep around ominously. As he says, “dreams are very tiring.”

He watches everything from “Stéphane TV”, the control room inside his chaotic brain that produces a cadre of bizarre images: the imaginarily heroic Stéphane sprouts gigantic hands to fight his “evil” co-workers, while in another scene, he battles an electric shaver that gives his boss long hair and a beard instead of cleaning him up. In true Freudian fashion, the filmmaker brings up a recurring dialogue with his mother (French icon Miou-Miou), who always seems to arrive at an inappropriate time, much to his chagrin. In his head, Stéphane is a dynamo; in reality, he is swallowed up by issues with women (notably his mother), his jealousy (professional and personal), and his own narcissistic ego.

Stéphane is given a job doing typesetting for a calendar company, which his mother arranged for him. The whiny young man is shocked to learn that he will not be performing creative tasks but instead be doing formulaic work that a machine could do.

As he becomes disenchanted with his job, surrealism shows in everything. It’s in Stéphane’s dreams (the only place where he realizes his artistic potential), his waking life (where he is essentially awkward), and all places in between. Perhaps Gondry is trying to say with his audaciously colorful mise-en-scene that the surreal isn’t all that significant, that we all experience such wildness in our dreams and our reality all the time. It’s no big deal. Everybody daydreams, so in this respect, surrealism and dreams are quite mundane – they are perhaps vivid when happening, but they are also quite commonplace.

The Science of Sleep is set in Paris in a grand homage to pioneering surrealist films such as Rene Clair’s Entr’acte and the concept of Dadaism. Stéphane and his new friend/paramour Stephanie (the amazing Charlotte Gainsbourg, the sole force that saves the film from complete disgrace) actually, at one point, ride a giant, animated “hobby horse,” an image that pounds its message home like a hammer to the brain. The pair is practically engulfed in ineptly obvious bizarre imagery.

Stephanie implores Stéphane to “stop acting like a child” (an additional bit of sound advice for the unstable young man might also be to get some Prozac ASAP), but she is no authority on the subject: Stephanie is equally plagued by whimsy, and by the looks of it, she enjoys letting go of control over her actions every bit as much as Stéphane. She is generally reserved and quiet, but something in Stéphane brings out her dormant, girlish feelings. And the next time someone decides to cast Gainsbourg as a piano-playing singer/songwriter, they should have the good sense to incorporate her lovely compositions into the story. That was an unforgivable foible on Gondry’s part.

The inane parade of images from a film such as Entr’acte (which was fairly cutting-edge, given it was made in 1924), from the weirdly-angled shots of a ballerina twirling to the little black dolls with expanding, balloon-esque heads, are all intrinsic to Gondry’s overall purview: his body of work seems to solely rely on these sorts of silly, almost repetitive images and concepts. It’s as though the director wants the viewers of The Science of Sleep to think they are engulfed in dada, that everything happening is random. The opposite is true of his finished product: everything is so meticulously scripted, so neatly packaged, and so ably tied together that the concept of happily not making any sense is thrown out the window for the banality of extreme, rigid logic.

It would be refreshing if Gondry could completely escape this stale style deeply ingrained in his conventions and tackle his next filmic subject with fresh eyes and a more detached focus. For a director that people believe to be so cutting edge, Gondry’s The Science of Sleep borrows heavily from his predecessors.