Perhaps no artistic medium is as closely tied with the language of dreams as film. This results in an enormous challenge for any filmmaker who attempts to depict dreams in cinema - how does one differentiate a dream from the inherently dreamlike texture of any film without creating something overly self-conscious or contrived? And this is also the larger question for any artists concerned with dreams - how does one deliberately craft the uncanny? With The Science of Sleep, a film about a man who has trouble separating dreams from reality, we are given a possible answer. The film suggests that dreams are no more or less real than waking life; while this is not a new idea, The Science of Sleep is unique in that its dream sequences are not designed for critical analysis; for director Michel Gondry, the mind is magical, and dreams are depicted not intellectually but with a whimsical sense of awe (he took a similar approach to memories with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). The result is often wondrous, sometimes frustrating, and ultimately quite sweet.
Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), an aspiring artist and self-proclaimed inventor, arrives in Paris to live in his mother's apartment building after the death of his father. Spending his days working at (or skipping) a boring job at a calendar company, Stéphane becomes smitten with his neighbor, Stéphanie, who shares his sense of childlike eccentricity. But Stéphanie is also more mature than Stéphane, who is unable to cope with his emotions on an adult level; his bouts of self-destructive adolescent behavior, her tendency towards emotional remoteness, and their shared insecurity and fear of loss keep them from connecting. And Stéphane retreats into a dreamworld somewhat reminiscent of Sam Lowry's in Brazil, where he can assume the role of a celebrity, a visionary, or an adventurer. Dreams and waking life collide and reverborate throughout the film; what could have quickly become jarring and chaotic is held together by Gondry's sense of play and his inventive visual style, which ties together handheld camerawork, Pee-Wee's Playhouse-esque stop motion animation, rear projection and other sleights of hand to create a fully realized cinematic world created out of the director's own intensely personal dream logic.
The film teeters precariously on the edge of self-indulgence; during the first reel, I found myself detached from and increasingly impatient with the nifty yet seemingly disconnected and emotionally hollow images. But as Stéphane and Stéphanie race around her apartment planning an animated film about a "vegetable Noah's Ark," the film finds its heart and its narrative focus. Bernal and Gainsbourg create a believably idiosyncratic pair; as they fiddle with a one-second time machine, it's impossible to imagine either character belonging with anyone else (for what else is love but the embrace of a dream that has not yet proven itself to be true?). It's agonize to watch these two dance around the obvious - at first, it seems like Gondry is trapped in that horrible romantic comedy formula that introduces two obvious soulmates and then conspires to keep them apart for no other reason than to pad the running time. But as we get to know the characters, Gondry reveals a bittersweet truth in their inability to embrace their dreams, reflecting the ways in which we all make love harder for ourselves to experience than it has to be.
Bernal succeeds in creating a character that is essentially sympathetic even when his behavior is creepily self-serving (such as breaking into Stéphanie's apartment to leave her a present); no matter how many times the guy fails, you keep rooting for him. Dressed in his father's too-small coat, he's like a boy playing at being a man. And Gainsbourg is a revelation as Stéphanie; while Stéphane wears his heart on his sleeve, Stéphanie remains in many ways an obscure object of desire, and Gainsbourg creates layers of elusive meaning with poignant grace. The Science of Sleep is a delicate contraption held together by the airest bits of cinematic trickery (a prancing stuffed pony, Spin Art, a city made of cardboard) that sometimes undercut the film's emotional impact. And yet, upon leaving the film, you may experience that wonderful sensation of viewing the world through slightly different eyes. It's an effect, of course, that is not unlike waking from a particuarly strange and beautiful dream.