Unleashed from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, director Michel Gondry conjures up a whimsical, irrepressibly creative and playfully childlike confection in “The Science of Sleep.” No doubt highly personal and yet as effervescent as sparkling water, this fanciful dive into the imaginative world of an insecure young man, and his haphazard attempts to establish a connection with a female neighbor, has all the visual excitement of the director’s previous work, and as such will appeal to his devoted international fan base in limited specialized release.
With Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal energetically playing a vulnerable graphic artist with a hyperactive imagination and little confidence with women, pic has an overriding quality of sweetness that will prove endearing to audiences, especially younger females. However, lack of much plot per se and a vaguely squeamish, almost infantile attitude toward sexuality will give pause, even if unconsciously so, to others.
After initially being glimpsed stirring together the ingredients for his “recipe” for dreams in the private TV studio of his mind (one lined with egg cartons and equipped with cardboard cameras), Stephane (Bernal) is seen returning after a long absence in Mexico to Paris, where his French mother (Miou-Miou) has secured a job for him. But it’s a boring one, setting type, in an otherwise eccentric office where one co-worker in particular, Guy (Alain Chabat), proves endlessly amusing.
Things on the domestic front appear promising, with the arrival of new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose cute chum Zoe (Emma de Caunes) flips Stephane’s switch. The bashful, immature-seeming Stephane quickly realizes he has no chance with a trendy party girl like Zoe, and intermittent moments of rapport and fun with Stephanie establish a vibe of quasi-romantic expectation between them that, more often than not, are pulled back to Stephane’s comfort zone in the form of zany creativity and games.
Due to Gondry’s ineffable visual sense and quick timing, stuff that seems hopelessly cornball on paper — a connection between the two like-named neighbors based on her collection of stitched-together animals, their creation of imaginative environments using the likes of cellophane and cotton — mostly disarm.
Despite Stepanie’s protestations that she’s not interested in the boyish Stephane, their developing sense of common ground, cultivated by his desire to share his dreams, keep her intrigued. “Since he was 6, he’s inverted dreams and reality,” Stephane’s mom reveals, and one cannot help but be at least somewhat captivated.
At pic’s best, Gondry generates a sense of youthful camaraderie based on spontaneously prankish creativity that recalls the Godard of “Band of Outsiders”; there’s a freewheeling exhilaration to some of the scenes augmented by the (admittedly little-used) Parisian setting and a sense of no limits.
Downside, though, comes via an inordinate preoccupation with toys and childhood artifacts, one that reminds of nothing so much as Tim Burton’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” a film aimed, unlike this one, at children. Despite his alleged hots for Zoe, Stephane comes off almost like a pre-adolescent, as he has not allowed adult concerns (including real sex) and the sordid, grim nature of worldly ways to sully his psyche, with the exception of one uncharacteristically violent series of illustrations.
Film’s final 20 minutes or so try to achieve some sort of resolution to the Stephane-Stephanie relationship, but as often as the teeter-totter changes position, ambivalence and inconclusiveness rule the day, and pic has played all its cards some time before fadeout.
Bernal is charming and unafraid to appear immature, while Gainsbourg charmingly allows her shell of indifference to evaporate in favor of a certain innocence and curiosity. Chabat provides sterling comic relief.
Technically, the film is immaculate in an intimate, precious way. Extensive animation done at Gondry’s studio provides a crucial element of the film’s appeal, to which Jean-Louis Bompont’s ultra-nimble lensing, Juliette Welfling’s fleet editing and Jean-Michel Bernard’s score add dimension.