The Science of Sleep, 2006
The new Michel Gondry picture, The Science of Sleep, has been out for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve had a tough time talking about it. When people ask me if I liked it, I mumble something about being confused by my own reaction. When they ask me if I’m going to write about it, I tell them I’m working on a screenplay that’s too depressing for me to be interested in love stories. But that’s a lie; I’m writing a treatment, not a screenplay, and I don’t look at The Science of Sleep as much of a love story. When I ask my pals what they thought of it, they are dismissive. They hate it. As one friend gifted in the art of distilled qualitative assessment put it, “It’s pure faggotry.”
And faggotry it is, in the way that it preens and prances in the form of its main character, Stéphane, played with fey light-footedness by Gael García Bernal. His character’s got no center, his nervousness is played with showy gestures and skittishness that sends him bouncing all over the frame. He’s exhausting to watch, because he’s doing so much and communicating so little.
There are plenty of other things wrong with Science, like its literal symbolism. Stéphane’s boss tells him to shave, and when he tries to do so that night, the electric razor injures him, becoming an easy embodiment of painful conformity. In one of his interminable fantasies, Stéphane imagines programming the razor to attack his boss, not to trim him, but to make his hair grow. Ugh.
The Science of Sleep is practically a procession of fantasy scenes like these, clunky stuff that doesn’t find an excuse to exist in what little reality there is in the movie. The dream sequences are illustrations of Stéphane’s wish for a mystical way to control his environment and, by extension, the girl he loves. Gondry has a blast constructing delirious illusions out of concrete objects for these scenes. Where others use blue screen, he uses double-projection. CGI effects aren’t as fun for Gondry as cellophane or stop-motion animation stuffed animals. While the other kids were discovering video games, Gondry was cutting construction paper, his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth.
The fantasy scenes may be the authorial voice celebrating the scene (okay, fine) or Gondry getting giddy with his own inventions (gag). Fantasies that result from Stéphane’s malfunctioning ego are self-involved, overstay their welcome, and – to make an admittedly easy accusation – would play fine as White Stripes videos but do not make good in narrative trifles like this little ditty.
These scenes of fantasy follow snippets of exposition with heavy-handed attempts at whimsy that would squash the light spirit of the movie, if it had one. And that’s where things get a little complicated. For all its appearance of a romance, Science is a bummer. It doesn’t work, it’s juvenile, it’s unbearably awkward. But it’s fascinating in the way it dismantles itself as it moves along, inverting its own joyfulness at every pass. Gondry’s stabbing some holes in this little love letter. It’s a bloody valentine, and that’s why I’ve had trouble talking about it. It’s a failure, but I’m kind of into it.
The center of a love story, the couple, is never really that tricky in movies. There’s an agreement between the movie and the audience that the audience will root for the couple to get together – if you’re not gonna get on board with the duo on the poster, you shouldn’t have plunked down any dough to watch them make passes at each other. But Gondry pushes the agreement past its contract with the coupling of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Bernal. These two are not charming, and are barely charmed by each other. Gondry’s got them speaking stilted English to each other, keeping their flirtery arrhythmic, eliminating any possibility of conversational ebb and flow that might get them canoodling. Stéphane’s state of pre-teen arrested development is anathema to the anorexic Gainsbourg’s stuffy, hypersensitive Stéphanie, a craft girl full of admonishments.
Still, we watch Stéphane give it his best shot, which involves useless lies about where he lives, breaking into Stéphanie’s apartment, crying in front of her, making himself all too available, and proffering premature proposals. It’s all a demented stab at courtship, an inept bid for attention, and an unapologetic display of ego. Chicks simply don’t dig that shit, dude.
And still, being aware of all this – and making us aware of all this – Gondry soldiers on through this grim escapade, this procession of music video set pieces, this jaded grade school art project. Giving two characters (and actors) so mismatched for each other practically the same name (Stéphane and Stéphanie) plays more like a sick joke than a cutesy conceit. For all its footwork and fanciness, Science of Sleep is a lover’s lament, a deeply unhappy movie about a guy who loses in love because he can’t balance his mental retardation with his joie de vivre and because – we find out in the confused and complicated finale – he’s a dick.
The central scenario of The Science of Sleep is dreadful in its familiarity. The girl wants to be friends. The boy wants to marry her, so tries to charm her. She’s not as much charmed as flattered, so entertains his advances, only to push him away when he gets his hopes up. It may not be a love story, but it is the story of a boy trying desperately to woo a girl, and watching it is just about as embarrassing as watching a boy trying desperately to woo a girl. In that is truth, and in truth is beauty.