The Science of Sleep
2006Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg
he Science of Sleep should’ve been titled Waiting for Kaufman, mainly because, while watching this film, one is struck with one unmistakable thought: When is Charlie Kaufman going to come in and save this gorgeous but unsatisfying film from itself. Unfortunately, like Guffman, Kaufman is a no-show.
It’s this lack of Kaufman that makes Michel Gondry’s latest such a frustrating experience. Because we all know that somewhere out there Charlie Kaufman is living and breathing, probably holed up in a fortified compound in the Hollywood Hills, alternately hating and loving humanity and effortlessly oozing brilliance. And Gondry isn’t there to direct his savage and twisted visions. Which is a true shame, because Gondry and Kaufman, the team that produced Human Nature and the finest movie of the past several years, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind, need to be working with each other. In fact, if I were President of the United States, that might be my first decision: Forcing Gondry and Kaufman to sit down in a room together somewhere and explain to one another exactly how much they need each other.
As one might expect, the central dilemma with The Science of Sleep is its script. Where Kaufman’s genius lies in his ability to contain his high-concept, labyrinth-like plots inside a framework of tightly controlled narrative structure, Gondry, who wrote Sleep’s screenplay, does not possess this rare talent. This is a major part of why The Science of Sleep feels like Eternal Sunshine-lite, a noble idea beautifully shot, bursting with vivid Technicolor brilliance, while ultimately falling flat.
In describing the plot, the word “mind-fuck” is the first adjective that springs to mind. A convoluted and tangled mess of ideas, Gondry weaves through the courtship of a man named Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his attempted romance with a woman named Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While trying to court Stephanie, Stephane is also forced to cope with the difficulties in moving to a new city (he has just moved to Paris), a boring and stultifying job, and a very strange living situation. Through it all, Gondry tries to make points about the concept of memory and the serpentine ways in which it weaves through each person’s consciousness.
If this sounds similar to the plot of Eternal Sunshine, that’s because it is—except with the earlier film, Gondry was able to utilize Kaufman’s ability to create nuanced and heart-breaking characters while keeping things coherent. The Science of Sleep instead seems unfocused and rambling, prone to bouts of self-indulgence. One never gets a true sense of its protagonists, nor does one ever know what drives them. In fact, you never really know why you should even bother caring about them anyway. Gondry strives to imbue his film with deep and thoughtful themes, yet he doesn’t quite possess the ability to embody these concepts in flesh and blood human beings. On top of it all, the plot is burdened by its terrific opacity and unnecessary desire to be confusing. And one gets the sense that this is how Gondry wanted it.
In writing, the easiest thing to do is be purposely obtuse. It’s much harder to craft something provocative, nuanced, and complex, while simultaneously keeping viewers engaged and cognizant of the plot. Eternal Sunshine may not have been the most straight-forward movie, but one never lost sight of what was going on, despite the innumerable twists and turns. Here, one is never sure exactly what’s going on and, while that’s an interesting concept to ponder, one gets the sense that this would’ve been a much better short film than feature.
That said, only one element in particular makes The Science of Sleep worth watching: the visual genius of Michel Gondry, the man who rocketed to fame on the strength of his stunning video work for artists like Bjork and the White Stripes. Gondry creates a unique world, filled with captivating shots, Harryhausen-esque claymation, and a generally dazzling kaleidoscopic array of images. But ultimately, judging from Sleep, Gondry’s expertise seems to be behind the camera, not holed up in some Hollywood hills manse writing draft after draft after draft. That’s where Kaufman comes in. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get this band back together: phone calls, e-mails, maybe even group therapy like Metallica in that documentary. Either way, it needs to happen. Soon.
The Science of Sleep is playing in limited release.