The Science of Sleep: Frustrating Dream Movie
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The Science of Sleep — a French-Italian co-production from the world’s oldest continuously existing motion picture company, Gaumont, with a title rather awkwardly translated from the French La Science des Rêves (The Knowledge of Dreams would be closer) — begins as a real charmer. Basically it’s a remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, drawing on both James Thurber’s marvelous short story of the man who couldn’t stop daydreaming and the 1947 film version, for which screenwriters Ken Englund and Everett Freeman made Mitty a proofreader for a pulp-fiction publisher (thereby immersing him in the same man-of-action clichés that fueled his dreams) and involved him in a real adventure story as far-fetched as anything in his dreams or his employer’s publications.
In this version, written and directed by Michel Gondry — who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and co-wrote its story with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth, only to see the reviewers hail Kaufman as that film’s auteur because he wrote the actual screenplay — the Mitty character is Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal). The product of a Mexican father and a French mother (though in that case, why does he have a French last name?), he went to live with his dad when his parents broke up. As the film begins he’s just lost his father to cancer and mom (Miou-Miou) has summoned him to Paris with the promise of a job that will tap his skills as an artist and a graphic designer.
As things turn out, the job is about as mindless as one could imagine: he’s going to be doing pasteup for office calendars manufactured by a company headed by one M. Pouchet (Pierre Vaneck) — a name that seems a calculated pun on “poulet,” the French word for “chicken.” He’s totally uninterested in the job and relatively uninterested in his motley group of co-workers — except for Guy (Alain Chabat), who insists on giving him dubious advice on how to meet, relate to and seduce women — and he’s living in a building owned by his mom, where he meets two potential girlfriends, neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her friend Zoë (Emma de Caunes). He’s first attracted to Zoë but soon shifts his affections to Stéphanie, partly because she’s actually there in the same building with him and partly because Gondry has set it up that way and signaled his intentions to us by giving them such similar first names.
Nothing in Stéphane’s waking life, however, matters anywhere near as much as the world he enters when he dreams. We first see him hosting a faux TV show called “Stéphane TV,” which he seems to imagine as a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Wayne’s World, with cheerily mock props: the “cameras” are cardboard boxes with tubes stuck on the front to simulate lenses, the monitor screens in back of him are also cardboard with TV-shaped holes cut in them, and the sound baffling is made from egg crates. Gondry has clearly thrown far more imagination into the dream sequences than any other part of the movie; the dreams range from hard-edged realism to animated cardboard models and everything in between (the one in which he tries to flee the police in a cardboard car is especially charming), and they’re continually interesting visually in a way the rest of the film is not.
At first we’re genuinely charmed by Stéphane’s character — especially as compared to the hard-bitten, unscrupulous, ambitious aspiring actors Bernal played in Bad Education and dot the i — and we want to see him learn what he has to from his dream world, mature as an adult human being and end up with Stéphanie at the end. The problem with this film is that he doesn’t: he doesn’t grow, he doesn’t change, he doesn’t do anything. He just slacks off more and more on his job and alienates Stéphanie with gross physical references to her body in the manner of an eleven-year-old boy on a school playground taking out his first twinges of puberty on the girls his age. As the movie progresses — or at least unreels — Stéphanie gets more and more alienated by his boorish immaturity — and so does the audience, until by the end both she and we are glad to be rid of him.
Gondry’s inability — or unwillingness — to let his central character grow up makes it impossible to enjoy The Science of Sleep, despite its visual elegance and funny gags. It may seem strange that a sophisticated Latin American actor like Bernal comes off as more of a boor than Jim Carrey did in a similarly themed film by the same director, but that’s what happens. The characters in Eternal Sunshine, with their desperate desires to regain the memories artificially pumped out of them, touch the audience in ways that Gondry’s puppets in Science of Sleep do not. Gondry came to film directing via music videos, and it shows in his airy indifference to dramatic sense and his willingness to move his story in any direction that momentarily suits his desire for striking visual images — but whereas other music-video directors who’ve attempted feature films have had a problem with keeping their characters consistent, Science of Sleep errs in the opposite direction: Stéphane is too consistent, and we get tired of seeing him make the same mistakes over and over.
Buster Keaton’s 1924 Sherlock, Jr. remains the greatest dream comedy ever put on film; like Stéphane, Keaton’s character is a naïf, unable to relate normally to women (or anyone else), who assumes an air of potency and power when, falling asleep while running a movie in a small-town theatre (he works as the projectionist), he literally dreams his way into the movie he’s showing. As director, writer and star, Keaton shows a dazzling imagination far beyond Gondry’s, shooting his character’s dream with real-looking people and props that make the tension between real-reality and dream-reality that much more excruciating and hilarious. Gondry has a real sense of atmosphere — in his evocation of what a publishing company looked like before personal computers and scanners, with pasteup boards and stat cameras, you can practically smell the foul odors coming from the photographic typesetting machines and the chemicals that developed their output into usable galleys — but his movie isn’t anywhere nearly as entertaining as it would have been if he’d just have let Stéphane grow up a little.