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Science of Sleep, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Lot Of Nice Visuals In Seach Of A Spotless Screenplay"
3 stars

There is hardly a scene in “The Science of Sleep,” Michel Gondry’s follow-up (not counting the recent documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”) to the mind-blowing “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” that doesn’t contain at least one astonishing visual flourish. As someone who goes to the movies primarily to be dazzled in such a manner–an increasingly rare event where the stylistic coups of such masters as Brian De Palma and Michael Mann are being rejected by both audiences and critics (who should really know better) for the glorified TV-movie aesthetics of “Little Miss Sunshine” or the Zach Braff joint of your choice–I loved many of these moments, both for their aesthetic beauty as well as their reckless audacity. And yet, I have seen “The Science of Sleep” twice now and both times I have come away with a profound sense of frustration at the rather hollow and unsatisfying whole that Gondry has given us. This is a film that is obviously a feast for the eyes but the heart and mind wind up coming away from it as dangerously undernourished as a model turned away from Fashion Week in Madrid.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Stephane, a young man who has just returned to France from Mexico after the death of his father. A passionate dreamer, Stephane evades the hum-drum reality of his everyday life–a stultifying job doing typographical work for a calendar company and a strained relationship with his mother (Miou-Miou)–by constantly slipping into the fantasy world of his mind. One day, he has a meet-cute, one involving a falling piano, with new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), another creative type stuck in dreary reality. The two seem perfect for each other–even their names are alike–but Stephane inexplicably doesn’t seem to pick up on this. Not only does he decide that he is more attracted to Stephanie’s party-girl pal Zoe (Emma de Caunes), he even creates an elaborate charade to disguise the fact that he lives right next door to her. Despite this, Stephane and Stephanie hit it off but this budding relationship is threatened by Stephane’s increasing inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Of course, in a film like this, the plot is little more than a clothesline from which to hang any number of visual flights of fancy and “The Science of Sleep” has more than its fair share of such treats. Virtually every scene in the film has some piece of eye candy on display. In the world of Stephane’s mind, his electric razor suddenly develops spider-like legs, his hands suddenly grow to enormous proportions and entire cardboard cities materialize out of nothing. For the most part, these flourishes are frequently hilarious, occasionally touching (especially a lovely image of an enormous cloth horse riding into a sea of cellophane) and always dazzling to look at. At times, “The Science of Sleep”comes closer to the spirit of a multi-media art installation than the conventions of an ordinary narrative film and if you take it in that spirit, there is much to admire here.

While it becomes evident early on that “The Science of Sleep” is going to be a visual tour de force, it becomes equally evident that it is also going to be a dramatic and emotional dead end as well. For starters, Stephane is such a dense and obnoxious character–less head-in-the-clouds and more head-up-his-ass–that it becomes impossible to care about him in the slightest. He is whiny and self-absorbed and his behavior is often so inexplicable–why would a self-proclaimed artiste like himself be infatuated with the blonde bimbo when someone on his own peculiar wavelength is right there in front of him?–that watching him flail about becomes excruciating after a while. At a certain point, we even begin to lose patience with Stephanie because we can’t figure out what it is about this guy that she is so hung up on. Not even the immense personal charm and charisma of Bernal and Gainsbourg can quite cover up the fact that they are playing a couple of ciphers who are so dreary that most audience members will begin developing their own elaborate fantasies of better movies and more interesting lead characters than the ones they are watching.

The problem here is that while Gondry once again reveals himself to be a master of visual splendor, he also needs a strong collaborator to provide a foundation for such splendor. In his previous feature films, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the underrated “Human Nature,” he had such a collaborator in acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Here, Gondry is working from a screenplay that he wrote himself and proves without a doubt that his talents behind the camera do not extend to putting words on paper. If he was able to simply transcend that flaw and find a way to tell his stories almost purely through visual storytelling, along the lines of a Brian De Palma or a Tim Burton, this wouldn’t be such a problem but Gondry has not yet developed that ability. He can craft individual moments as astonishing as anything you could hope for but he has absolutely no idea of how to tie them together.

I don’t hate “The Science of Sleep”–it is far too innocuous to inspire such a reaction–and I have even gone back to watch it again in an attempt to see if it played any better the second time around. Alas, while the stuff I liked the first time (the technical wizardry, the charm of Charlotte Gainsbourg and a darker-than-expected finale) holds up just fine on repeated viewings, the flaws stand out even more than before. For those who want nothing more than a bunch of nifty individual moments, you could do worse than this film but those who crave something more from their cinematic head trips are probably going to walk away more than a little disappointed.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=13581&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/29/06 00:18:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/08 Samantha Pruitt Amelie + Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind = this movie, a little less, imaginative 3 stars
1/25/08 James from Dublin imaginative,thought provoking,beautiful film,loved Laura Faggioni's designs,clouds,horse 4 stars
10/28/06 jcjs so fine..i thought 'Scanner Darkly the smartest of the year until this.even with no words 5 stars
10/14/06 Heather The scene involving the electric shaver is priceless 4 stars
10/01/06 Mike This film has made my list of all time favorites. I love Gondry and Garcia. 5 stars
10/01/06 Jim the Movie Freak One of the best films of the past five years. 5 stars
9/22/06 Guido Whimsy and imagination, these days, seems lost on people. A great film. 5 stars
9/13/06 veronique not my kind of movie 3 stars
9/12/06 Edward Connell IMAGINATION? You will need one to follow the storyline. 3 stars
6/19/06 Blackbrain You can only take from this film what you brought to the theater. 4 stars
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  22-Sep-2006 (R)
  DVD: 06-Feb-2007



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