The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves) (2006)

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.

The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves)

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean-Michel Bernard, Emma de Caunes, Alain Chabat, Stéphane Metzger, Miou-Miou
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-09-15 (Limited release)
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.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.