A film about sleep that makes you yawn

In exploring the weird world of the subconcious, Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep snoozes on plot and character.

If the title leads you to expect a Reith lecture, Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep might leave you feeling a little cheated. Not that it’s entirely uneducational. I now know that drinking whimsy neat, though it’s fun to start off with, will leave you heaving after a prolonged session. Still, it’s character building, which is more than can be said for the film.

Here’s the plot: With his father having recently died, a young Mexican, Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), heads to Paris, stays at his mother’s apartment, gets a job typesetting mucky calendars, and eventually falls in love with Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). That is not the most thorough synopsis around, but a fuller narrative sketch for a film as dream-like as The Science of Sleep might only reduce it to a series of fantastic clauses: ‘And then the electric shaver attacked Stéphane’s boss and made his hair grow. And then he flew out of the window, and swam through the paper city. And then he saw his boss who was destitute.’ In Gondry’s imaginative universe, real relationships with the world need not apply.

In this regard, attention to the scientific allusion of the title is instructive. Everything hinges on the conjunction. It is not, then, the scientific study of sleep, but the ‘science’ that belongs to sleep, namely, dream work. Through this activity, everyday reality is sublimated. Or to put it another way, the mundane is transfigured and mastered by Stéphane’s subconscious. Take the dream sequences involving his workplace, wherein his hands are massive, both too awkward and, ultimately, too powerful for the menial, repetitive tasks he’s assigned. Or that staple of office release - the photocopier fornication. In the dream, laws, both natural and social, are objects of Stéphane’s consciousness alone. 

But by blurring any distinction between what is happening within Stéphane’s head and without, The Science of Sleep goes further. Dream work ends up providing Gondry with an analogy for, and, perhaps, an ideology of, film making, that process of alchemy whereby form transforms the material of the world according to the director’s will. That Stéphane’s mind, ‘the most complex thing in the universe’ is realised as a film studio is in no way as flippant as it seems.

It follows therefore, that within the film the magical and the fantastical are presented almost scientifically, as aspects of reality. Hence, when Stephanie wants to know how Stéphane animated her felt horse, Golden the Pony Boy, he earnestly explains: ‘it’s a simple application of chaos theory. Parallel synchronised randomness, allows the legs to move simultaneously.’ During the explanation, the film cuts to the stuffed horse galloping across Stephanie’s flat, whilst she looks on and smiles. And in a way, it makes sense. Certain technical film making skills, Gondry’s ‘science’ if you like, have realised the fantastic. Film has allowed the imagination to make reality over, to have time move backwards and forwards at the flick of a switch, to make cellophane flow like water, and water like cellophane. Gondry answers the demand daubed on a wall in Paris’ Latin Quarter nearly 40 years ago: ‘Be realistic: demand the impossible.’ 

But it’s also too much. Too much fantasy, too much will, too much Gondry. There is a tendency for his vision to tolerate nothing that is not itself. And the result is a kind of empty idealism, an absolute subjectivity that has made everything - and nothing. When Stéphane sulks because Stephanie won’t be his girlfriend, there’s a resonance, perhaps intentional, to her reprimand, ‘(d)on’t be a child, Stéphane!’ But there’s not enough of this, this engagement with the needs and interests of others, this encounter with occasional recalcitrance. Indeed, the dream sequences pale before the far richer comedy of the seemingly non-dreamt scenes, where Stéphane’s energetic naïveté is thrown into blessed comic relief. Nowhere is this more so than in the final exchange with Stephanie, where, exasperated by her refusal to marry him, he makes one last play: ‘I like your tits. They’re very friendly and unpretentious.’ Not a successful tack. 

The ending, however, opts out: Clambering angrily onto Stephanie’s bed he lies down and finds himself looking at the miniature boat he and Stephanie made together. As he drifts off in reverie, the film follows. And there he is again, this time with Stephanie, sitting astride Golden the Pony Boy, itself on board the now life-size boat. It suggests the triumph of art over life. But at some point he’ll have to wake up, and he’ll have a terrible hangover too.

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