- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

“The Science of Sleep,” Michel Gondrycqfirst film made from his own screenplay, suggests that perhaps his previous collaborator, Charlie Kaufman, had an inhibiting influence on the director.

It takes a singular talent to be restrained by a screenwriter as fanciful as Charlie Kaufman, with whom Mr. Gondry and Pierre Bismuth shared a Best Screenplay Oscar for 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one of the most imaginative films of recent years. But Mr. Gondry is one of the medium’s most creative visual minds, and in his new offering he brings the dream world of one very confused young man to magical life.

The French filmmaker started out as a music video director, doing groundbreaking work for artists like Bjork and Beck. He turned the White Stripes into Lego figures in the video for their hit “Fell in Love with a Girl.” He then moved on to commercials, producing inventive ads for big companies like the Gap and Levi’s.

Like fellow music video director Spike Jonze, who directed the Charlie Kaufman scripts for “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” Mr. Gondry likes playing with narrative conventions, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. In “The Science of Sleep,” Stephane (“Y Tu Mama Tambien’s” Gael Garcia Bernal) has trouble distinguishing between the two. “Since he was 6, he’s inverted dreams and reality,” reports his mother (played by French star Miou-Miou).

The movie opens with Stephane stirring a pot and explaining that dreams are made of “random thoughts, memories, reminiscences of the day.” He’s speaking to the imagined audience of Stephane TV; the scene is ostensibly beamed to us through cameras made from cardboard boxes. Stephane’s dream world looks like an elementary student’s science and art projects, mushed into one.

It’s clear the young man has a serious case of arrested development. He’s just returned to his mother’s Paris house from Mexico, where he’d been living with his father, now deceased. (He doesn’t speak French well; this device allows Mr. Gondry to make most of the movie in English, more accessible to American audiences.) His room is still filled with his old toys; he spends his time creating even more.

His mother has found him a job producing calendars. The position doesn’t provide fulfillment, however; the proprietor isn’t interested in Stephane’s “disasterology,” a calendar featuring scenes of 12 different disasters, like famous plane crashes. “My customers don’t have any sense of humor,” he explains.

Stephane finds a soul mate of sorts in the similarly named Stephanie (the incomparable Charlotte Gainsbourg). Stephane first falls for her outgoing friend, Zoe (Emma de Caunes). But he soon realizes that the introspective Stephanie is more sympathetic to his need to express himself in, as the film progresses, zanier and zanier ways.

But Stephane isn’t grown-up enough for a mature relationship. Mr. Gondry’s whimsical visual creations — animated water made of cellophane, a stuffed horse to carry the pair off into the sunset — never distract from the sad story at the core of this film: how Stephane’s inability to face reality keeps him from forming a real connection with the one person who understands his fantastical imagination.

Mr. Bernal plays Stephane with just the right mixture of vulnerability, lunacy, and swagger. Miss Gainsbourg, always a treat to watch, holds her own as the delicate, frustrated Stephanie. Alain Chabat lightens things up as Stephane’s co-worker Guy, a man’s man who has some growing up of his own to do.

“The brain is the most complex thing in the universe,” Stephane marvels. “And it’s right behind the nose.”

Reality has plenty of wonder in it, if only we’d recognize it. Stephane might not. But Mr. Gondry most certainly does.

***

TITLE: “he Science of Sleep”

RATING:

R (lnguage, some sexual content and nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michel Gondry.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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