Tuesday, September 26, 2006

"The Science of Sleep," dir. Michel Gondry (Oklahoma Gazette, 9/20/06)

A life lived primarily within the mind inevitably leads to heartbreak – being wrapped up in your thoughts closes you off somewhat from the outside world; you’re too busy inventing, dreaming and pondering to truly stop and enjoy what’s in front of you.

That very specific pain seems to be one that the unquestionably brilliant Michel Gondry knows all too well; “The Science of Sleep,” a heartbreaking, whimsical masterpiece that’s one of the year’s best films, feels uncomfortably autobiographical and searingly honest, a portrait of the artist as wistful lothario.

Following the mind-bending brilliance of last year’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” you might’ve wondered where Gondry would go next. After all, “Eternal Sunshine” was a perfect fusion of romantic comedy and wildly cerebral flights of fancy. He tops that work with this one, flying solo and penning his own screenplay for the first time, Gondry employs rough-hewn visual effects and a disarming naïveté to create the tactile world inhabited by his larger-than-life characters.

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal (“Amores Perros,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” the upcoming “Babel”) as the introverted illustrator Stephane, “The Science of Sleep” charts our hero’s futile attempts at striking up a relationship with the shy, creative Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The narrative isn’t any more complicated than that; it’s the layers and details added by Gondry that enriches this simple, closely observed tale.

Employing editing techniques worthy of Godard, smashing fantasy and reality against one another with glee, “The Science of Sleep” is a jagged, jump-cut affair that evokes the prime of the French nouvelle vague; echoing an earlier, more vital time, Gondry and his cast perform without a net, creating a film that will likely be met by an audience slightly unsure what to make of it.

Those who like their special effects seamless and slick will be greatly disappointed by the work here; Gondry’s affection for the process of imagination is evident in the handmade, rudimentary set pieces, strewn with rear projection and stop-motion animation. The crude effects not only heighten the surrealism, but they give the film a palpable sense of being.

“The Science of Sleep” would be a fascinating failure were it not for Gondry’s fearless cast: Bernal is superb, adroitly handling the sudden shifts in tone from farcical to raw and Gainsbourg, not likely by accident, evokes more than a little of Jean Seberg in her performance. While providing color and texture, much of the supporting cast is drowned out, as the film is essentially a two-character piece.

Those unwilling to give themselves over to Gondry’s vision likely won’t stick it out until the sweet, poignant finale but those who do will have witnessed a film obsessed with a life of the mind, but ruled by the maddening whims of the heart.

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