The difference between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep is the difference between a good pop song and a great punk record, a fluid Escher-like mindbender and a kaleidoscopic Jackson Pollack drip. Messy like spaghetti, the cavernously oneiric Science of Sleep risks everything, more personal than the Gondry for Beginners production Charlie Kaufman put on with Eternal Sunshine. This is the first Michel Gondry film that feels completely born of the pop magpie’s own imagination—fabulously homegrown and devoted unpretentiously to an oddball way of looking at and appreciating the world and the people who run through it, a blissfully cluttered vision instantly and affectionately recognizable from Gondry’s groundbreaking music videos for The Chemical Brothers, Foo Fighters, Kyle Minogue, Massive Attack, and Björk.
The film trips the light fantastic through the imagination of Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), an artist from Mexico who comes to France to visit his depressed mother and falls in love with her next-door neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), after he realizes he stands no chance with her friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes). But his love for Stéphanie is no compromise. Though he repeatedly asks for Zoé’s number (in and out of dreams), it’s clear that Stéphane only has eyes for Stéphanie, who shares his whimsical outlook of the world, spirit, and modes of creation. A film about the roads and dreamways less traveled, the Science of Sleep gives a sweet Gondrian twist to that eternal distraction of looking—over and over again, forward and backward—for love in all the wrong places and the crazed rapture of finally finding it like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of one’s shoe.
This metaphysical lark typifies what Michael Atkinson beautifully described for Film Comment in 1998 as a film blanc, a nursery film that “waxes upon and moons over its own extraordinary childhood.” The childhood here belongs to Stéphane, who moons over the past in a state of arrested development, with the loneliness and curiosity of a child hungering for attention. In REM sleep, Stéphane is many things: host of a cooking show where dreams are always the main course, future lover to Stéphanie, and, perhaps a nod to the greatest line from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, pace Arthur O’Shaughnessy, a furried musicmaker. How apt, then, that the film comes to us with the intimacy and heart of a child’s pasta-and-glue craftwork, hoping to stake a claim on that big, white, and impressionable fridge that is our approval and appreciation.
By day Stéphane is a frustrated artist working for a company that specializes in nudie calendars (in a funny running gag, his co-workers—one man, one woman—are inexplicably called “fags”), but he’s the master of his own domain in dreams, his boss turned into a homeless man and the calendars on the wall replaced with his own ecstatic artwork. Not only does his life bleed into his dreams but also the other way around, and the logic of the two-way spill is both sweet and threatening—like an exposed nerve that sparks like a live wire. When Stéphane loses his grip on Stéphanie’s piano early in the film, the instrument tumbles down a cavernous stairwell and onto the street below; the high notes no longer play but a specific key can still make cotton-ball clouds float to the ceiling. Gondry’s belief in the impossible and the joy he takes in his creation is not only something to love but also something to fall in love to—a secret to share like a mixtape of love songs.
The film’s whimsy might be execrable if it wasn’t justified by Bernal’s performance—a bold act of faith and devotion to a character that is obsessively and compulsively a slave to his childlike emotions. Without apology, Stéphane sleeps to dream, dreams to love, and loves to create. Both the character—a doppelganger, clearly, for Gondry—and the film share this same philosophy, which the director asks us to adopt as our own. For Gondry, the science of cinema is not unlike the science of sleep, where everything and anything is possible. Gondry, like David Lynch, makes art from the many-spindled arcs of our dreams and fantasies, but Lynch hasn’t gone so far as to suggest that our dreams are works of art themselves, our imagination a gallery of unfinished, haunted frescos. To submit to Science of Sleep becomes something strangely akin to acknowledging that our dreams make more sense than our waking life. Imagine that.