“I’m not convinced that Gondry is an expressively great film director — that his virtuosity is joined to his heart.” David Edelstein wrote that two and a half years ago, in his otherwise gushing review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, on the evidence before us now, who could argue? Michel Gondry’s follow-up to Eternal Sunshine, the new The Science of Sleep, is a fascinating, beautiful, lewd, and boundlessly imaginative film — think Buñuel by way of Godard — but beneath its psychedelic surrealism and constant visual invention lies a love story that is, at best, half-hearted.
In Science, Gael García Bernal plays Stéphane Miroux, a clearly autobiographical character who shares most of Gondry’s preoccupations and all of his solipsism. Stéphane fancies himself an artist, and his mother has gotten him a job at a small calendar-printing company where he thinks he’ll be designing and illustrating the calendars. He’s painted a set of famous disasters, a project he calls Disasterology, and he thinks the new job will be his chance to share them with the world. But when he gets there, he finds that he’s been hired to operate the antiquated typesetting machine and actually physically cut-and-paste the copy for the calendars. Almost as bad as the job, though, are his new coworkers: quiet, continually harassed Martine (Aurélia Petit); her assistant Serge (Sacha Bourdo), who speaks English like a ’70s swinger; and lecherous Guy (Alain Chabat), whose outward appearance as a boring, middle-aged office drone masks the obnoxious, bullying adolescent he truly is.
In addition to his Disasterology project, Stéphane is an inventor of impractical Rube Goldberg contraptions and fanciful devices like glasses that let you see real life in 3-D and a time machine that can move you one second into the future or into the past. His imagination and naïveté can be charming, but his childishness creates problems for him — he lives so much in his dreams that he can scarcely distinguish between them and reality. And after a while, neither can we.
As soon as he settles into his mother’s apartment, Stéphane has a meet-cute with his new neighbor after her clumsy movers drop a piano and crush his hand. She’s a fabric artist named Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was Sean Penn’s wife in 21 Grams), a sweet girl, but skinny and a bit plain, with lank hair and a strong jaw similar to Patti Smith in her youth. She quickly develops a crush on Stéphane, but he’s drawn to her more conventionally attractive friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes), who has a boyfriend and isn’t interested in him. Though Stéphane is initially distracted by Zoé’s more obvious charms, as he gets to know Stéphanie, he warms to her eccentricity and begins to reciprocate her crush. But she resists her feelings because she knows of his initial preference and doesn’t want to be hurt or humiliated.
A viewer can admire and be amused by what Gondry’s doing without ever really connecting emotionally with the film. The unpredictability of his script is a welcome break from the typical, formulaic romantic comedy. And it’s wise about the difficulties of love — as in life, nothing here goes according to plan — and funny in an absurdist way, but the digressions into Stéphane’s dreamlife and the goings-on at the office detract from the love story. Gondry’s music videos and previous films have employed the logic and imagery of dreams, often to great effect, but in those cases he was forced to keep his navel-gazing in check either due to the brevity of a pop song or the constraints imposed by an existing script. (It helped, too, that both his previous features were written by Charlie Kaufman, whose sense of the absurd dovetails nicely with Gondry’s visual wit.) But here, with 105 minutes to kill and his own screenplay to work from, Gondry seems far too distracted by his cinematic games to keep his focus on the lovers, and they become interchangeable with his stop-motion creatures and other fanciful gewgaws. Finally, at the film’s close, we get a palpable sense of the characters’ need for each other, their desperation to connect, but by then it’s too little too late.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Science of Sleep / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | September 30, 2006 | Comments ()