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.
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.