Saturday, February 9, 2008

Science Of Sleep; Gondry's Paper-Mâché Reality

Michel Gondry is probably most well known for the videos he directed and his first full movie, "The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind". A film that showed to the world that Jim Carrey could actually act. Something we'd suspected since "Man On The Moon", but couldn't really be sure of because he played the part of Andy Kaufman. A comedian with the same overblown stylistics as Carrey himself. "Eternal Sunshine" and its unsuspected huge success, artistically and at the box office, made Gondry as hot in movies as he was in music videos where he started his career. Through is own band Oui Oui and his subsequent collaboration with Björk on "Human Behaviour" celebrities of all sorts had been flocking to be touched by his eccentric talent. In the days where videos made an artist Gondry seemed to be able to make old washed up rocker like the Stones seem like hot new product and gave Kyle Minoque a new sense of hipness where there should be none. Although Gondry worked with artists who already had a buzz going because of their talent, he managed to get Beck and The White Stripes over to the video consumer, who were sloughed behind their televisions.

Making movies is a whole different deal than making movies. But Gondry seems to be catching on awfully quick. If he needed help on the first, by the time he got to science of sleep he could do it on its "own". For that film Gondry wrote both the script and directed. The movies theme makes it apparent why there was such a chemistry between "Eternal Sunshine" screen writer Charlie Kaufman and himself. "The Science Of Sleep" explores the same questions and themes Kaufman likes to ponder on. "Science" is a wonderfully acted and shot visualization of how dreams work. Just as in Kaufman's scripts and in dreams, you are constantly wondering when the fantasy stops and reality kicks in. Like Kaufman's scripts it is an exploration of how our minds can sometimes trick us, work against us.

At the outset the script seems a classic boy meets girl movie. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal)moves back in with his mother after his father died, right across the apartment of beautiful yet deceptively plain looking Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But the movie soon starts to shift. Stephane has difficulty separating dreams from reality. In his dreams he imagines himself a brilliant inventor, a stellar artist and a TV professor on the matter of dreams. In life Stephane is stuck in a boring job and finds himself unable to connect to the people around him, including Stephanie, but in his dreams he creates entire new worlds which he rules like a king. In Gondry's script Stephane'd dreams bleed into the real world, keeping the viewer off balance and constantly wondering what is real or not. His dreams are crowded with gorgeous stop-animations created from cellophane, paper-mâché, card board boxes and cotton. The problem with Stephane is they don't stay there. His dreams follow him into his day time reality, altering it, animating his surroundings. "Science Of Sleep" does a brilliant job of both making dreams tangible and offering an insight in their functions and dysfunctions. At first Stephane's dreams seem to offer him comfort when he is able to talk with his deceased father through them, they seem to lift up his spirits when they threaten to get crushed in his dull nine to five job making equally dull calenders and they give him the sense of self confidence he needs to ask Stephanie out. But a little while further in the film you are wondering if his wild fantasies and his lush dream world aren't the very thing that keeps him in that dull 9 to 5 job and which ultimately make him fail at making any real connection with the world around him. It seems that Stephane either can't escape its subconscious or doesn't want to. Although the imagery is often bizarre, in a dreamlike state the world seems to make more sense to Stephane even when it slips beyond his own control.

With its $4,5 million at the box office "Science" wasn't nearly as much of an success as eternal sunshine was with its $34 million. Part of that seems to be because no big actors were attached to this project. Bernal and Gainsbourg are fine actors who've reaped plenty of critical acclaim but they don't draw audiences like Kate Winslet or Jim Carry do. On top of that the movie is part French, much to European for the larger American audience. But in some part it is also due to the script. The character of Stephane brings a certain amount on unease with him. It is difficult to watch someone so at odds with himself. And where most movies follow a line upward, with the character finding coming to terms with himself in some fashion, Stephane seems to go in the other direction. His world is slowly disintegrating while he slips into his dream world. The end of the movie is so inconclusive that its impossible to spoil it for you even if I wanted to. Its like Gondry want to invite you into Stephane's dreams when you go home from the theater or turn off your television. The problem is, at the end of the film, you're not sure if you want to. So although the script is very challenging indeed and the result is a feast for the eye, it isn't exactly Hollywood material. Sadly movies like these are costly endeavors. If Gondry has the ambition to do more on the big screen one should hope that his next film hits big. You're only as big as your last they say, especially in Hollywood. "Science" could earn Gondry the reputation of a flunk director. So here's hoping he has a bit more sense of reality than Stephane. I for one would love to see more of Gondry on the big screen, something I fear won't happen when this wildly original director gets stuck in his own dreams.

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