November 10, 2008

Review of "The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep
5 out of 5 stars

Whether or not “The Science of Sleep” can count as a non-English language film is up for debate, as a substantial part of the dialogue is, in fact, in English. However, it is a French film, produced by Michel Gondry, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and set in Paris.

English is the second language of both the Mexican protagonist Stéphane and his French love interest Stéphanie, becoming akin to a private language for the both of them. I don’t think you have to be as enthusiastic about languages as I am to appreciate how the various changes between English, French and Spanish are an original way of changing the tone and showing how lost Stéphane feels in Paris. Stéphane and Stéphanie speak their shared second language together fluently, and it seems to me to be a metaphor for how they have new selves with each other – how speaking a language gives you the feeling of a slightly new identity – not in opposition to your mother tongue, just different.

So, nonetheless, even though I may be jeopardizing my chance to win a £50 Amazon voucher, I’m reviewing “The Science of Sleep” because it is one of the most original, surreal, entertaining, clever, visually engaging films I’ve ever seen, which also manages to put in a sweet and understated romance and plenty of humour, some of it offbeat, some of it satirical and some of it just very silly (in a good way).

The film is about basically about dreaming, and the travails of a shy, naive young man called Stéphane who experiences very vivid dreams on a nightly basis. He moves from Mexico to Paris after being promised a creative job, but the reality turns out to be much more mundane. He becomes friends with two girls who live in his apartment building, and after some confusion, develops a crush on one of them - Stéphanie. That’s the plot in its entirety, with the only narrative being Stéphane’s (and thus, the audience’s) increasingly tenuous grasp on the difference between dreams and reality, and the developing relationship between Stéphane and Stéphanie. It’s to Gondry’s credit that the film’s main appeal lies away from the “will they, won’t they?” aspect of their relationship, when a traditional happy ending would have made a very easy narrative arc.

The film starts off with a sharp contrast between the naturalist portrayal of Stéphane’s waking life, and the surreal depiction of his dreams on screen. As the film continues, the lines get blurred, as Stéphane’s overactive imagination and vivid dreams interfere with his ability to deal with reality, and he is shown to be something of a fantasist, and certainly very childlike. I’ve never seen what a dream actually feels like represented so brilliantly on screen. Everything is there: how the most fantastic occurrences seem normal, how ordinary characters from ones daily life become monstrous, the state of being half-asleep where it seems as if the real world is intruding on the dream and one can’t be sure which one is “reality”.

Plenty of dreams are symbolic, and of course, he dreams about Stéphanie. The symbols behind the dreams are never laboured, and all of them are so engaging to watch it seems like some were put in for fun. Cardboard cityscapes sway outside of Stéphane’s office window, he bathes in cellophane, and plays in a band all dressed up as animals, singing a nauseating love song for Stéphanie. A recurring dream is that he is presenting his own TV show – a kind of round-up news show on events in his daily life, and whenever his alarm clock wakes him up halfway through he wonders who is trying to take the show off the air.

Stéphane’s waking life has some brilliant moments as well – I found the sharp observations of the petty arguments and predictable jokes between his colleagues hilarious, especially the overweight, sex-obsessed, middle-aged Guy. Stéphane is like a fish out of water with these people; he’s shy, naive and not remotely interested in the "Office Ski Trip" they try and make him sign up for. They turn up his dreams, letting us see them how Stéphane sees them, hilariously juxtaposing the banality of his office life and the outrageous creativity of his dreams. Outside of work, Stéphane and Stéphanie make art projects together, and he charms her with home-made inventions - time machines, a motorised stuffed pony, a device to read her mind. Although this could easily descend into tweeness, it doesn't, thanks, I think, to Gael Garcìa Bernal's portrayal of Stéphane as guileless, awkward and entirely lacking self-awareness, and Charlotte Gainsbourg's level-headed portrayal of Stéphanie. She finds Stéphane charming and possibly a kindred spirit, but also wearies of his frequent strange and childlike behaviour.

I think the film's one fault is that the second half is slightly too long, with most of the witty dialogue, observant humour and romance in the first half. As Stéphane's mental state deteriorates, it seems more tragic that the only place he finds solace is in his dreams. I would have preferred a happier or more conclusive ending, if not necessarily a white wedding between Stéphane and Stéphanie.

However, these are very small faults in "The Science of Sleep" and I would recommend it to anyone. It's rare that a film is both very entertaining, with laugh-out-loud moments and amazing visual creativity, as well as so clever and imaginative that I'd be tempted to call Michel Gondry a creative genius.

dream in "the science of sleep"

stephane and stephanie

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    It sounds like the sort of film I’d like to see because you make it sound very interesting. But I don’t recognise your description of dreams at all, I guess it’s quite an individual thing. I might try and see it.

    10 Nov 2008, 23:00

  2. ann

    I think your description of the film is brilliant, your comments will encourage me to see it when it wouldnt be my normal choice.

    14 Nov 2008, 16:10

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