While the majority of the French population sit around smoking Gauloises, sipping Absinthe and trying very hard to look like tortured artists, Michel Gondry seems to have something else keeping him awake – sleep.
The acclaimed director is something of an oddball, having directed such an eclectic range of movies, including videos for Daft Punk and Massive Attack, the quirky Be Kind, Rewind (2008) and even an episode of the TV cult hit Flight of the Conchords.
He seems at his best when working with the ever-so-slightly surreal, and has the knack of making it fun, engaging and entirely unpretentious. His first sleep-themed film to catch my eye was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – a film in which I was not only surprised to find that Jim Carrey is a mighty fine actor, but that Kate Winslet also has her moments.
You will remember, if you have seen Eternal Sunshine…, how dreams and sleep almost interweave with real life in a subtle and quiet manner, up to the point where it’s often difficult to tell which is which. This, of course, is the thrust of the story. Many ancient cultures – and some modern ones – believed that dreams were just another part of consciousness, and talked about them as if they were on a parallel with conscious thought and experience. Gondry appears to have found a way of expressing this in cinematic form and is stamping his authority all over this movie-making method. His real talent lies in making both these worlds distinctly separate, yet linear, and managing to portray them so effortlessly that there is little danger of appearing too ‘arty’.
Written by the talented Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch (1998)), it’s a love story in essence, but don’t worry – it doesn’t get too squishy. If you know Kaufman’s work, you’ll know it’s not going to be formulaic, and will require at least a medium-term attention span. The reward is a cracking story, so well worth the efort. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) arrives in Paris, the town of his birth, from Mexico, following the death of his father. Despite his limited ability to speak French (it was his mother’s language) he manages to get a job in a design studio, hoping to forge a career as a graphic designer. There follows a few really well-paced gags on his clumsiness with the language which manage to be cute and touching rather than ‘oh look at the stupid foreigner’, and eventually the meeting with Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Gainsbourg, of course, is following the French law which requires her to look nothing but gorgeous, so obviously Stéphane would like to see more of her. His courtship is something of a farce in many ways, as he clumsily stumbles from one limp excuse to another and fails to win her over – except for her fascination with his aptitude for cartooning, stop-frame animation and the invention of weird gadgets. This plot device allows a fairly seamless transition from reality to dreams.
The Science of Sleep (2006) is a well-acted movie by a writer with a penchant for the unusual and a director who’s more than up to the job of filming his stories. Bernal and Gainsbourg make for an odd couple – not in looks, but in sensibilities, and play their respective parts with aplomb, but the real star is the set. Skipping between dreams set in a cardboard TV studio and flights of fancy lovingly rendered in stop-frame, this gentle romantic comedy (and yes, that’s really what it is) should leave you with a nice, warm and fuzzy feeling and a smile on your face. If not, there’s always A Nightmare on Elm Street.
105 mins. In English, French and Spanish.