In Spanish, French, but mostly English, The Science of Sleep tells the story of Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), a wayward man with an artistic soul who has difficulty distinguishing his dreams from reality. As visually inventive and quirkily romantic as director Michel Gondry’s last narrative feature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it still lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. It might be that veteran screenwriter Charlie Kauffman is replaced by the amateur scenarist Gondry. It might be that the dreamer Stephane is too close to the dreamer Gondry. It might be that the world of Eternal Sunshine is just close enough to the world of Sleep that it doesn’t feel as wildly original.

Whatever the missing ingredient of The Science of Sleep, it is not much missed. Gael, allowed for the first time on camera to appear as small and impish as he is in person, gives a terrific comic performance. The other actors do a fantastic job of keeping the hot-air balloon of a plot from drifting too far out of the atmosphere.

Continue reading about The Science of Sleep (minor spoilers)…Summoned by his mother to Paris after his father dies, Stephane takes a job at a publishing house that makes calendars. The work is less creative than he was lead to believe, but his wacky co-workers, especially the immature Guy, make the job seem pretty fun. Unfortunately for them, he rarely shows up on time, if at all, stuck as he is in a love-hate romance with next-door neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsborg, daughter of musician Serge). What sparks the romance is also what threatens it: Stephane’s inability to distinguish his waking life from dreams. Gondry purposely puts the audience in the same predicament. Figuring out what is actually happening is part of the riddle of this movie, and a large part of the fun.

While the climactic scene, where Stephane spouts offensive and lewd comments from his id, rings rather false — ending as it does with a tacit act of forgiveness whose meaning should have been established much much earlier — nonetheless the movie as a whole rather brilliantly captures the psychology of two people who have fallen in love with each other but are afraid to admit it to even themselves.

Making great use of intentionally cheesy stop animation and some excellent pop music, The Science of Sleep should be a lesson to aspiring special effects artists that new ground can still be broken with old techniques. As muddy as Eternal Sunshine looked on film, Science of Sleep is muddier. Imdb reports both were shot on 35mm. I could’ve sworn Sleep was 16mm. And the flashbacks of young Stephane with his father were almost definitely shot on 8mm (a flashback cliche in an otherwise un-cliched movie).

But a movie like this wins on imagination, not cinematography. Despite my listed reservations, I think Science of Sleep is among the best movies of this year. I have high expectations for Gondry, and those expectations continue.

Making of Science of Sleep videos on YouTube
FilterMag interview with Gondry about Science of Sleep
BrightLights interview with Gondry