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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 6.38%
Average: 19.15%
Pretty Bad: 25.53%
Total Crap: 2.13%

6 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Science of Sleep, The
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by Todd LaPlace

"From spotless to messy with one scratch of his pen."
2 stars

Ever since the late ’90s, arthouse filmmakers have been obsessed with answering the question, what is reality? In his book “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” critic Chuck Klosterman claims that question is the only relevant question left for filmmakers and lists a handful of movies that have answered it well (although I’ll still maintain that “Vanilla Sky” is most definitely not one of them). And now Michel Gondry — whose frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman practically jumpstarted the trend with “Being John Malkovich” — is tackling it again with “The Science of Sleep.” It’s a visually-stunning tale about a guy that drifts in between waking life and his dream world, sometimes forgetting which is which. It’s also a muddled mess that will never make Klosterman’s list of worthwhile films.

In a reality where anyone can be a pop culture star (thanks as much to the YouTube and MySpace Web site phenomenon as reality television), everyone thinks that their own personal lives and stories are entertaining fodder for worldwide consumption. Many are convinced that I want to escape my problems by delving into theirs. I first noticed the trend invading my beloved cinema last year with the small indie doc “Tarnation,” which features director Jonathan Caouette attempting to reconcile both his schizophrenic mother and her illness. It was a makeshift therapy session, cinematic masturbation of the most heinous kind; powerfully important to him, and unsatisfying for the rest of us.

And that brings us to Michel Gondry, the former music video director that made a well-deserved mainstream splash with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Even going so far as to film in a former residence, Gondry has crafted his latest, “The Science of Sleep,” as his own personal dreamscape. To describe it as self-indulgent is a magnificent understatement. Not only is the house his, but he thinks he’s replicated his 43-year-old French self as a 27-year-old beautiful Mexican man named Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal plays Stéphane, a misunderstood artist who moves back into his childhood home after his father’s death in Mexico. His mother sets him up with a “creative” job at a calendar company, but it turns out he’ll just be attaching new labels in the production of naked women promotional calendars. Stéphane is full of beautifully obtuse ideas that never translate into more than confounding vignettes, which last, tellingly, about the length of a standard 3- or 4-minute music video. It’s just too bad that the film is approximately 30 times longer and 30 times more frustrating.

Now directing his fourth feature, Gondry should be a pro at adapting his vision for mass consumption, but “The Science of Sleep” never congeals as a fleshed-out feature. Because his two previous narrative pieces, “Eternal Sunshine” and “Human Nature,” were funneled through genius writer Charlie Kaufman and the third, the stage doc “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” through the title comedian, the latest’s problems can clearly be linked back to the first time feature screenwriter, Gondry himself. The film produces plenty of enjoyable laughs, but we chuckle at the absurdity of the whole endeavor, but that’s different than appreciating the content. In a subplot that carries on for far too long, Stéphane attempts to create his own calendar of disastrology, pictures of famous disasters (like an earthquake in Mexico or the exploding of Flight 800 over the Atlantic Ocean) that occurred during that month. The pictures are almost childlike in their depictions of death and destruction, and we (along with Stéphane’s co-workers) can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all. It’s connection to and merit within the film, though, is highly debatable. It’s just a throw away laugh, much like when Stéphane introduces his straight-laced, middle-aged, sex-obsessed co-worker to a couple of girls by calling him and his ridiculous leather jacket “punk.” Like so much of the film, they’re funny moments, but entirely irrelevant.

For Stéphane, the only thing that truly feels relevant is his budding relationship with neighbor Stéphanie (an unkempt Charlotte Gainsbourg). At first more attracted to her cuter friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes), Stéphane finds a kindred spirit in his neighbor. In addition to sharing (nearly) the same name, Stéphane and Stéphanie begin collaborating on a video art project where a forest in a ship will sail an ocean of white and blue cellophane. She even begins appearing in his dreams, which often visually manifest as the cardboard television studio of StéphaneTV, a makeshift cooking show where he mixes metaphysical philosophies until they become dreams and subconscious human behavior. When he goes hunting for Zoé, he finds only an abandoned record studio (based on a little white lie about working as execs at a label named after a turtle), but when he chases Stéphanie, she plays along, often appearing as a guest on his show. Much to his dismay, however, she labels his frequent crying unattractive and flirts with other men. It’s all very “When Harry Met Sally” set in the cardboard world of Gondry’s mind.

Gondry has once again proved that he is a whiz at breathtaking visuals — Stéphane cardboard dreams truly are a wonder — but there’s a level to his storytelling that always rings false, as if Gondry himself is overwhelmed by his own fragmented brilliance. The idea of Stéphane’s calendars is intriguing — based on the shared collective memory of witnessing such disasters — but in a film so individualistic, so focused on Stéphane, the idea is wasted. It’s plagued by too many non-sequitur images, which in turn, get plagued by other alternative images. There’s a broken piano playing a sad original song, a magical felt pony, a silver foil-covered turtle fighting a preying mantis over an elephant, Stéphane’s icy feet jammed in his freezer, an exploding moon and a one-second time machine. Their intra-connectivity is dubious at best, but their appearances are so frequent that the picture is pretending to be smarter than it is, which seems to be the key behind Gondry’s inevitable future praise. Foot odor spray acts like healing lotion. A neighbor claims to be a mover. An artist impersonates to be a calendar printer. Pretentious deception masquerades as hipster avant-garde. Gondry is a visual director pretending to be a filmmaker and “The Science of Sleep” is a mess pretending to be a film.

As an industry, Hollywood has frequently put an undue amount of praise on directors and actors, much to the detriment of screenwriters. Gondry is a very talented director and Bernal is a very talented actor, but neither one could save this one from hurling down in flames. Maybe its release will be part of Stéphane’s next disastrology calendar.

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originally posted: 09/22/06 14:14:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/08 Samantha Pruitt Amelie + Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind = this movie, a little less, imaginative 3 stars
1/26/08 James from Dublin imaginative,thought provoking,beautiful film,loved Laura Faggioni's designs,clouds,horse 4 stars
10/29/06 jcjs so fine..i thought 'Scanner Darkly the smartest of the year until this.even with no words 5 stars
10/15/06 Heather The scene involving the electric shaver is priceless 4 stars
10/02/06 Mike This film has made my list of all time favorites. I love Gondry and Garcia. 5 stars
10/02/06 Jim the Movie Freak One of the best films of the past five years. 5 stars
9/22/06 Guido Whimsy and imagination, these days, seems lost on people. A great film. 5 stars
9/13/06 veronique not my kind of movie 3 stars
9/13/06 Edward Connell IMAGINATION? You will need one to follow the storyline. 3 stars
6/20/06 Blackbrain You can only take from this film what you brought to the theater. 4 stars
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  22-Sep-2006 (R)
  DVD: 06-Feb-2007



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