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Rated 2.96 stars
by 1337 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Artistic Types
by Jeffrey Chen

Director Michel Gondry's last fictional feature before The Science of Sleep was the superb Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released in 2004. I remember, however, feeling unsettled because many of the reviews about that movie credited screenwriter Charlie Kaufman as the primary creative force, as if he were the auteur of that work, and collaboration with Gondry was only incidental. Kaufman had earned his notoriety by penning Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but to attribute the brilliance of Eternal Sunshine mostly to him struck me as unfair, since Gondry himself is a unique talent and visualist. But as that movie was such a potent conveyer of emotion -- mostly an intangible when it comes to both writing and directing -- it was admittedly difficult to guage whose influence was felt more strongly.

The Science of Sleep arrives to gather solid evidence for Gondry as emotion's ambassador. Gondry wrote the script himself this time, and much of it is based on his past experiences. The resulting movie is a creative wonder, a precise dissection of an artistic personality type and how he deals with strong emotions. It makes sense, in hindsight, to attribute the more brainy machinations of Eternal Sunshine's story to Kaufman (whose scripts are cerebral twisters) and to recognize Gondry for drawing the tears and passion.

But enough about Kaufman and Eternal Sunshine; The Science of Sleep is Gondry's baby, a barely controlled outpouring of creative impulses which, at first glance, may seem like a distracting weakness, but at second look proves to be the correct approach to the material. Gael García Bernal, proving more and more that his range is wider than most, is cast as Stephane, a half-French half-Mexican English-speaking artist who has returned to Paris at the behest of his mother, who has wrangled a boring job at a calendar publisher for him. Not what Stephane expected, the position gives him no room to flex creative muscle; instead, his active imagination is allowed to stretch in his very vivid dreams, where more often than not he plays the host of a show called "Stephane TV," wherein he examines the events of the day and tries to pseudo-scientifically study phenomena such as dreams, love, and coincidences.

The key to this tale is, of course, love, and Stephane is sideswiped by it when he meets his neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She's the type that a misunderstood artist like Stephane would too easily fall for -- pretty, down-to-earth, and occasionally creative herself. But as creative men don't often conduct themselves as alpha males, Stephane tries to impress Stephanie the only way he knows how -- with his imagination -- while not making a direct move to win her affections. Naturally, things don't always go as expected, and Stephane's insecurities and sensitive reactions to negative events, coupled with his strange tendency to confuse his dreams with reality, counteract any headway he makes in establishing a relationship with Stephanie.

I can't begin to tell you how scarily, emotionally real this movie felt. It's perhaps dangerous to admit that I recognize too easily what Stephane goes through, that awkward position of just hoping the girl will snap to her senses and come around, once she simply embraces how wonderful it would be to be with an artistic individual. How much less boring it would be for her to be with someone with intelligence and imagination, as opposed to some lunkheaded monkey who'd push her around. Yes, it's something to grow out of, and Gondry communicates this stage of a heart's trial by fire so vividly and successfully that it's almost painful.

But to describe it that way might mislead one from discovering how delightful the movie is. Gondry is of a rare breed -- the animator who does things the old-fashioned way, with frame-by-frame stop motion. As Stephane's experiences lead him to crazier dreaming, Gondry lets his own imagination fly, animating cardboard cities and toy horses, making liberal use of perspective-shifting props, and filming absurd scenarios involving baths, caves, and tiny cars. The Science of Sleep's surreal reach is unfettered, and as with Stephane's dreams it defies its own boundaries, mirroring a distressed human being's attempt to get a grip on wildly passionate emotions.

With The Science of Sleep and, earlier this year, Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Gondry shows the joy of expressing one's creative impulses, and how the real world reacts around it. Curiously, Block Party is an example of a resolute success, as the beloved Dave Chappelle has his creative impulses embraced by his friends and community. Most people aren't as lucky -- they're more like Stephane, someone with a lot to give but with barely anyone interested in listening. As such, the journey of this kind of heart -- passionate but underappreciated, frustrated, a bit insecure -- finds its moments of solace in uncompromised artistic expression and the hope that others will connect with it. In Gondry's case, I find the connection is made.

(Released by Warner Independent Pictures and rated "R" for language, some sexual content and nudity.)

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