Given that Michel Gondry’s new movie, The Science of Sleep, centers around a man who has trouble distinguishing reality from his dreams, it is forgivable that the final product feels a bit disjointed. It is supposed to. But unlike Gondry’s better known Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this latest effort feels muddled, and that is less acceptable. I am reminded of a line from Tobias Wolff’s novel Old School about a short story called “Suicide Note” that read “as if it’d been written after the narrator blew his brains out.” The Science of Sleep views as if it were written before screenwriter Gondry woke up. It is imbued with limitless whimsy and invention, but faces very real limits in the arenas of coherence and judiciousness. This is a film that would appeal very much to Stéphane, the aforementioned sleepy protagonist, but it may be less satisfying to those who enjoyed the endless discussion sparked by the more focused Eternal Sunshine; Science comes up short on the intellect.
Stéphane, played by English-speaking Gael Garcia Bernal, moves to France to be with his mother after his Mexican father dies of cancer. For Bernal, who has mastered playing the archetypal man-boy, this is in many ways his U.S. debut. He is a household name among cineastes, and he has even achieved some degree of mainstream fame with roles like Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Julio Zapata in Y Tu Mamá También, but now, at last, he has jumped the final hurdle of those pesky subtitles that frighten so many audiences stiff. Throughout his career, but especially as Julio in Y Tu Mamá, Bernal has embodied the carefree cheer of youth. With Science, he struggles to give it gravity.
Stéphane’s style of dreaming is a thing to behold, full of cardboard cars, cellophane oceans, patchwork horses, and tie-dye swirls. He is coaxed to France by his mother (Miou-Miou), who promises him a graphic design position that would allow him some creative freedom. As it turns out, the job involves little more than setting text and scanning images, leaving Stéphane to dream of better times. His coworkers, at least, add a little spice to the corporate milieu. Guy (Alain Chabat) is a classic dirty old man, minus the old. Stéphane, who in many ways is a clean young man, is perpetually uncomfortable with the barrage of sexual language. Guy misses no opportunity for the obscene, despite objections from the two more artistic workers in the office (played by Aurelia Petit and Sacha Bourdo) that they cannot be both “fags” and “dykes” simultaneously. The chiding is mostly in good fun. Stéphane’s coworkers are no more interested in text-setting than he is, but, unlike him, they have learned to submit to the demands of a paycheck.
Such office dynamics, like everything else, are woven into Stéphane’s dreams, where he sees the workplace as a crushing force. These images work in contrast to fantasies of Stéphanie, his next-door neighbor and the only person who is able to tap into his childish psyche. Together they play and create, but much to Stéphane’s frustration, they do not procreate. Poor Stéphane—the child who never grew up—is left out of the world of business because he hasn’t the attention span for it, and out of the world of love because he is perceived as a child by others.
The Science of Sleep strikes a convincing balance between the sadness of Stéphane’s liminal experience and the humor of his surroundings. Even in the midst of the most ridiculous dreams, Stéphane’s subconscious has some interesting thoughts on real life. But the movie passes by without ever hitting any nails on the head. It never manages to be much more edifying than a dream, constructing things we already know into new patterns. The patterns are great and at times even hypnotically watchable, but one is left wondering how much better the film might have been if Gondry had woken up and made some conscious narrative decisions. Eternal Sunshine was a story about memory erasure, and yet Gondry did not instruct projectionists to chop out sections of the film at random. Science is a story about dreams, but it never manages to wake up.