The Science of Sleep
Following up 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has proved challenging for both screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, in that expectations are almost too high for what they might do next. Though the box office was only fair, Sunshine netted both men an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and the film is now considered something of a masterpiece if IMDb.com is to be believed. But the alchemy of that film has much to do with the combination of Gondry and Kaufman. For the first time in his career, one of Kaufman's original screenplays had a reined-in third act and though Gondry had directed Kaufman's earlier Human Nature (2002) this seems to have come from Gondry's influence. Indeed, now that Gondry has made a film without Kaufman, 2006's Science of Sleep, it appears that Sunshine was the overlapping section of the Kaufman and Gondry Venn diagram. Science of Sleep is very much a small film, a minor key work that can't compete with Sunshine in terms of profundity, but on a smaller, more intimate, and more naked scale, it's decidedly just as personal, and just as powerful. It's just not as easily accessible as Sunshine, which also makes it more fun to discover and unravel.
The film begins in the dreams of Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal). His father has just died, and he's trying to commune with him, though the dream goes off course (the Duke Ellington concert becomes a Duck Ellington concert, which destroys the façade). Stephane is moving to France to be closer to his mother (Miou-Miou) and moves into the apartment building she owns. His mother has set him up with a job making calendars, which is simply grunt work, though he thought it would involve his art. The only benefit of the workplace is that Stephane quickly gets close with older, sex-obsessed Guy (Alain Chabat). He's awakened one morning by the drilling of his new next-door neighbor. She's Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but helping her move in is her best friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes), who's more obviously attractive. Hearing Stephanie complain about the landlord living next door, Stephane pretends he doesn't live in the building. But after another meeting, it turns out that Stephane and Stephanie are both artists with active imaginations, and there is a definite connection. Stephane dreams about her, and wants to tell her that he lives next door, but he also can't forget that he was initially attracted to Zoe, and so he writes a note in a somnambulist state that he delivers under her door, realizes what he's done when he wakes up, and then retrieves it. She reads it in the interim, but never tells him. Stephane's dream life takes up much of his free time, and he (and the viewer) has a hard time separating the two. As such, his pursuit of Stephanie is wracked with guilt over his failings and filled with a lot of self-sabotaging.
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Where Joel Barish's character in Eternal Sunshine is instantly accessible, Stephane's persona in Science of Sleep is not but in very fascinating ways. Though obviously both are director (and writer) surrogates, Joel is the Bugs Bunny to Stephane's Daffy Duck. And where Joel is immediately empathetic, Stephane can't help but say the wrong things at the wrong times, even when it's going well. And where Sunshine appeals to the romantic, The Science of Sleep shows a character who can't help but self-destruct. This can be oft-putting, but the picture is also about a character that is emotionally fragile after his father's death to cancer, who simultaneously wants and rejects intimacy based on his own tangled emotions. Counterbalancing this ugliness and pain is Gondry's visual inventiveness, which replicates much of his work in music videos, with stop-motion animation and dream logic that astounds with its inventiveness. This dream logic also lets the viewer into Stephane's head, to the point that the narrative is so much Stephane's that Gondry says (in the DVD supplements) that he has no idea what's going on in Stephanie's head. And that sense of Stephane being the director-surrogate is one of the stumbling blocks the viewer will likely experience with The Science of Sleep it is very much a personal journey and possible exorcism of Gondry's relationship dramas (he mentions repeatedly in the extras how much things are based on his own experiences). Thus like many great and horrible artists he puts himself out to be examined and dissected. But he does not highlight Stephane's good side, he mostly shows his jealousy and impotent rage over the relationship, which often shows that Stephane is so in his own head that he creates problems for himself. It's not a pretty picture, but sometimes that's the way it goes. And as such, it's a brave thing, a special thing.
Released by Warner Independent, The Science of Sleep is presented on DVD in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, the dialogue mixing between English, French and Spanish. As to be expected, the transfer is outstanding, and the soundtrack is crystal clear. Extras include a commentary by Gondry with stars Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Sacha Bourdo, "The Making of The Science of Sleep" (39 min.), a featurette on the stuffed animals and their creator "Lauri" (11 min.), and two pieces on stray cats: "Rescue Me" (4 min.), and "Adopt Some Love" (5 min.). Theatrical trailer, bonus trailers, keep-case.