Michel Gondry is the Willy Wonka of cinema. He loves bright colors, punchdrunk whimsy, and, to cop a phrase, pure imagination. He's probably a madman, and that's what makes him so charming. You can't help but laugh at the sheer, giddy joy of his storytelling, even if the laughter is, occasionally, of the nervous variety. But make no mistake—Gondry isn't a candyman. His movies are delicious and delightful, and they'll leave you with a heck of a sugar rush, but their nutritional value is much higher than that of an Everlasting Gobstopper. Gondry's films can pack a surprising emotional wallop, even when they don't necessarily make logical sense.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane

Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane

And, as with Wonka, Gondry has an imagination so infectiously childlike and enthusiastic that his art is great in spite of its imperfections—in fact, one is inclined to say that the blemishes just make his movies all the more charming. That's certainly the case with The Science of Sleep, a movie that flaunts Gondry's greatest weakness and dazzles in spite or because of it. Simply put, the man isn't a great screenwriter; he's got too many big ideas and not enough focus or sense of purpose. In the past he's brought in hired pens like Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature) to give his flights of fantasy some basic structure, but in Sleep he goes it alone. Thus, any sense of narrative focus is derailed after half an hour, but don't let that bother you—the fun just keeps flying by, deliriously inventive, full of exuberant whimsy and ramshackle energy.

Stephane is all ears while listening to Stephanie

Stephane is all ears while listening to Stephanie

One almost wonders if the film is some kind of abstract autobiography. Gael Garcia Bernal plays a guy named Stephane, but he really seems to be playing Gondry himself—a man immersed in a world of dreams and fancies, not always sure of what's real and what's just in his head. Stephane is a timid artist who lives with his mother and works a boring, unfulfilling job in Paris, which gives his mind ample opportunity to wander and concoct all manner of strange romances. He develops a crush on his neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). And then … well, things get a little tricky. Gondry's film drifts freely between the real world and the dream world, with the distinction growing blurrier and blurrier. Thus, the film becomes less about plot and more about the hallucinatory images and trippy metaphysics.

That doesn't mean that the film is plotless; it just means that the real treasures here are in the witty observational humor, the quirky character interactions, and Gondry's fixation on messing with our perceptions of what's real. The film is riotously funny, but it can also be thought-provoking, if you choose to engage its wonderful weirdness on an intellectual level. Gondry creates some fascinating and clever parallels between the real and the dream, showing how the happenings in Stephane's daily life influence his imagination, showing up in mutated forms while he's sleeping. The film even raises some interesting questions about the nature of dreams, asking us to consider in what ways they can help us and in what ways they can lead to trouble; Stephane's infatuation with the dream world makes him a creative and romantic individual, to be sure, but at what cost?

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Guy more than has his hands full with Stephane

Guy more than has his hands full with Stephane

The cast members—Bernal in particular—give sterling performances that very much keep to the film's sense of whimsy and wonder, but also ground it in very real human emotions. Even that can't keep the movie from starting to unravel a bit at the bumpy, confusing climax, but no matter—the real star here is Gondry, and he's brought his A-game. Like Willy Wonka, Gondry has more than just a dazzling imagination at his disposal; he's also got the know-how to make his dreams a reality, manifesting them and packaging them as colorfully as possible. The Science of Sleep brings its dream world to life with the best special effects you'll see on the big screen all year—and very few of those effects are computer-generated. Gondry goes at it with the DIY-method here, eschewing fancy animation technology in favor of cardboard, cellophane, and summer-camp arts and crafts. That's what makes the film, above all, a collection of small, simple treasures—a city made entirely out of cardboard, for example, or a motorized cloth donkey. (Gondry's creativity and ingenuity are mirrored by Stephane's ambitions to be an inventor—some of his gadgets, like his one-second time machine, are priceless.)

Gondry also excels at handling the complexities of human relationships—something he masterfully proved in Eternal Sunshine, and, too a lesser extent, shows a knack for in The Science of Sleep. There are no big, profound statements here about romance and fidelity, nor is there the huge emotional punch of Sunshine, but it's enough to ensure that the film is more than just an exercise in weirdness. That said, if cinematic weirdness is your bread and butter, The Science of Sleep is a feast for the imagination and a triumph of creativity—the kind of movie that'll lift your spirits and make you think even while it's rotting your teeth.

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Talk About It

  Discussion starters
  1. In what ways does the film cause us to think about dreams and reality? How does it blur the distinctions
  2. In what ways are Stephane's dreams helpful to him? In what ways are they hurtful
  3. Do you think Stephane is a selfish character? Why or why not
  4. What might the film be suggesting about the power and importance of imagination?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Science of Sleep is rated R for language, sexual content, and nudity. The language and sexual content mostly involve some frank discussion of sexuality, including references to oral sex and to various parts of the human anatomy. The nudity includes both male and female, but both instances are brief.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 10/05/06

Have you ever wished you could play back your dreams and study them? That seems to be what director Michael Gondry has done in The Science of Sleep.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the favorite film of Christianity Today's film critics in 2004, Gondry worked with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to take us into the memory and the subconscious of his characters' minds. Thus, it seems like a natural progression for Gondry to take moviegoers next into a dreamworld. And what a dreamworld he's created.

The Science of Sleep is a romance, full of imagination and whimsy that will have you asking "How did he do that?" even as it charms, bewilders, and alarms you. While the unconventional lives and behaviors of its central characters introduce us to some discomforting and reckless behavior, discerning viewers may find delightful rewards as Gondry guides us through his wonderland.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Frederica.com, originally published in The National Review) says her high expectations for the film were "more than fulfilled; the screen is nearly always filled with something playful and delightful to watch, both live action and charmingly old-fashioned stop-motion sequences." She notes, however, that "a couple of inherent problems make the story harder to appreciate than it ought to be."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "By turns sweet and surreal, the film touches on many of the same themes as Eternal Sunshine, though the net result is less poetic. … [T]he movie's offbeat originality is sabotaged by Gondry's affection for dreamlike images over narrative coherence that ultimately undermines emotional involvement in the story. Overall, The Science of Sleep disappoints, even as it dazzles."

Mainstream critics are happy to be back in Gondry's weird, wild imagination.

The Science of Sleep
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language, some sexual content, and nudity)
Directed By
Michel Gondry
Run Time
1 hour 45 minutes
Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Miou-Miou
Theatre Release
September 29, 2006 by Warner Independent
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