There's a scene—or, more properly, a dream—near the end of The Science of Sleep where Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal) finds himself in the life of a drug dealer whose girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also plays his waking opposite number Stéphanie) has just thrown him over. The police have found him, and he flees, still grief-stricken, carrying a rifle made of toilet paper tubes. Out a window, roofing stones shattering underfoot, he drops to a narrow street and breaks into a tiny cardboard car. But he is trapped. In the end he crashes his car into a painting from his childhood, trying to escape into something simpler.
Everything in the scene—the romantic betrayal, the presence of his mother's new boyfriend as one of the cops, the jerky camera-work and the endless repeated fleur-de-lis wallpaper pattern—suggests a grown-up world that simply overwhelms writer/director Michel Gondry's protagonist. This is what grownups do, Stéphane believes: they make terrible mistakes, they hurt each other, they punish. Hence his retreats into dreams—although in this film, the line between dream and reality is an invisible one, and at times the two seem to overlap.
This is a feast of a film; visually chewy, frequently hilarious, and in the way of dreams, rife with symbols begging interpretation. Gondry's history as an innovative director of music videos (witness the inspired weirdness of Kylie Minogue's "Sugar Water" (1996) or Bjork's "Human Behavior" (1993)) is evident here. Stéphane destroys, then rebuilds the world to the accompaniment of the White Stripes; he and his co-workers perform a silly love song in kitten suits. Gondry shows us cities made of cardboard, ski hills made of cloth and yarn, dream surfaces made of spin art. As he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), he builds his irrealities more out of textures than smooth computer graphics. The result is a film that sometimes looks like the inside of an elaborate basement playhouse or a grade-school art class. It's handmade. It smells of glue.
How much of it is really happening is an open question. A few things are more or less certain: After his parents' divorce, Stephane went to Mexico City to live with his father. But his father has recently died, so he has returned to Paris, where his mother has found him a job at a calendar company. He moves into the apartment where he once lived with his parents, and sleeps in his bedroom, where nothing has changed. Fire trucks and police cars decorate his pillow, and childhood inventions surround him—a Rube Goldberg-like device for shutting off the wall switch, an alarm clock that continuously demands,"Can you complete the mission?"
But the job is not what Stéphane had hoped—instead of working as a graphic designer (his portfolio contains a proposal for a calendar called "Disasterology": twelve naïve-art paintings of earthquakes and plane crashes), he's employed pasting banners and logos onto film. His co-workers—horndog Guy, yin/yang pair Martine and Serge—are like children, his new boss M. Pouchet the father-by-proxy.
Though he's not happy there, the fact is that this place is perfect for the child-man Stéphane. His first night back, he tries on an old suit and finds it too small for him; yet the next day it is a perfect fit. He tries to shave, but the electric razor he finds in his mother's apartment burns him. The cleaning woman in his mother's building, who remembers him as a child, looks at his eyes and declares that he is "almost a man." But it's a threshold he's not ready to cross.
Instead he "works" in his sleep (often showing up late to his job, or not at all), where he imagines himself the host of a show about dreams and memories. He takes refuge in memories of his father, his collaborator in invention and imagination. He rewrites his everyday reality. He personifies monotony in the form of his co-workers and defeats it; he makes Pouchet's masculine authority manifest and expels it.
Stéphane's insular existence is disrupted when he stumbles into a confusing triangle with his new neighbor Stéphanie (the gorgeously gangly Gainsbourg) and her friend and co-worker Zoé. (It's confusing—as well as amusing—in part because Stéphane pretends not to be living next door.) Initially intrigued by Zoé, Stéphane finds a kindred creative soul in Stéphanie, who composes, builds, crafts and repairs, but rarely finishes. She tells him about her plans for a diorama of a boat within a forest, but he mishears her as proposing a forest within the boat; soon they are collecting clear cellophane from the tap and levitating clouds with piano chords.
It's a lovely moment, and perhaps the most overt example of how Gondry refuses to make the distinction between reality and dream. There are no concessions in this film to those who like their strangeness with explanations. Is Stéphane only dreaming when he learns that Zoé and Stéphanie are not really music executives? Is he awake when his mother's boyfriend, a stage magician, first waves a meal away from the table, then causes it to reappear? His mother says, late in the film, that since the age of six Stéphane has "inverted" dreams and reality. He can't explain to her, or to anyone, what he's really done and what he's dreamt. To him there is no difference.
Stéphane finds it difficult to explain himself, period, and in his efforts to do so he switches from English to Spanish to French, a language he struggles with. (Yes, much of the film is subtitled.) He jokes that he can feel his mustache growing faster when he speaks French, and tells Stéphanie that he is too embarrassed to talk to her in her native language. His clumsy (but charming) confession of interest in her takes place in English, but is preceded by a garbled tri-lingual note which he writes in his dreams: "I am your neighbor ... a liar ... by the way, do you have Zoé's number?" (In one of the film's funniest dream sequences, the note—under that title—becomes a best-selling novel.)
Despite his many missteps, Stéphane tends to recover because of the purity of his motives. For a story about the unconscious, the film is notably chaste; Stéphane and Stéphanie trade dirty jokes, but neither shows much inclination towards sex, except in the abstract. (At one point Stéphane refers to Stéphanie's breasts as "friendly and unpretentious.") In Stéphane's dreams he has sexual encounters with his co-worker Martine, but these are clichéd simulations, anatomically incorrect, a child's picture of sex. In his waking life, he knows that he wants to kiss Stéphanie, but not what happens next.
But Stéphane's belief in dreams and imagination bears strange and unexpected fruit. He says that what he really wants to do is invent; and he creates wonders, though they resemble nothing so much as toys. He gives Stéphanie a time machine which can jump backwards and forwards one second at a time, and he makes her stuffed horse Golden the Pony Boy run on chaos engines. She's charmed by his attentions. But she suspects that he would still prefer to be with Zoé, and she's romantically ambivalent. "I can't have a boyfriend," she says at one point, and while Stéphane is initially crushed, soon after he seems happy enough to be working with her on their boat project, surrounded by cellophane and cotton batting. They are like two children who bump heads and sulk for five minutes before going back to their games.
Gondry's not the only contemporary filmmaker with an affinity for arrested adolescents—Wes Anderson, for example, has made a career of such portrayals. The influence of J.D. Salinger's works shows through in both; in "The Science of Sleep" it's difficult not to see Stéphane's ear-flapped stocking hat as a counterpart to Holden Caulfield's hunting cap. The fact that it recurs and disappears with little regard for continuity, even spending much of an early scene on Guy's head, seems to add credence to Stéphane's declaration that his co-workers are only creations of his subconscious. Perhaps Guy is simply his id made manifest, and Martine and Serge are meant to personify the conflict between the rational and the romantic? Are Stéphane's sexual dreams about Martine just half-hearted attempts to integrate practicality into his irresponsible life? In the dream-world of "Stéphane TV" his co-workers and his mother all speak with his voice; even Stéphanie, the object of his desire, counsels him on how to woo her from within his subconscious (much as Kate Winslet's character did for Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine).
I suspect that Gondry is perfectly aware of the traditional ways in which his film might be interpreted, and that he's acknowledged them only to undercut them. The names of the two protagonists, for example, and their easy affinity, would almost suggest that they serve as Jungian anima and animus to one another. But Stéphanie does not fit so simply into the anima role; rather than appearing as Stéphane's feminine archetype, he at one point confesses to Guy that she reminds him of his father. And when we see them collaborating (playing) together, we're reminded of the dream-films of Stéphane and his father. Similarly, Guy (played, in a masterful supporting performance, by Alain Chabat) is too complex, and ultimately too compassionate, to be simply Stéphane's lizard brain. Gainsbourg's Stéphanie is too fully flawed and too exasperated by Stéphane's clumsy attempts at courtship to be just his reflection.
Stéphane, whatever his power over dreams and reality, is helpless in the face of his feelings. He makes the toy horse live, but he breaks into Stéphanie's apartment to do so; when his insecurities (in the dream-shape of the mad, bearded M. Pouchet) cause him to miss a date, he opens a wound on his forehead running into her door. His final meeting with Stéphanie is a pendulum of cooperative magic, crude innuendo and off-the-cuff insults. He's a boy trying to act as he thinks men do, and failing. Yet García Bernal's performance is entirely winning. Even at Stéphane's most foolish, we never lose sympathy for him, because he is trying so hard, and yet is so ill-equipped.
In the end Stéphane returns to his dreams; but is it significant that when he does so, it is not in his child's bed, but in Stéphanie's? Is the fact that she lies beside him to be seen as a progression towards adulthood? The final shots of the film, the dream image which Gondry closes with, may be read as advance or retreat, comedy or tragedy. Is the film an indictment of the artist who refuses to engage with the world on its own terms, or a celebration of same? The answer seems to be Yes, to both.
For those who have no patience for stories without signposts, or for Holden Caulfield and his spiritual descendants, this film may be a frustrating experience. It doesn't so much cohere as accrete; and from a certain angle it is a self-indulgent story about a brat who refuses to grow up. But even from that angle, there is plenty to see.
David J. Schwartz's fiction has appeared (or will soon) in The Third Alternative, Polyphony, Twenty Epics and here at Strange Horizons. He dreams of a fatted barge.