Who better to make an imaginative, playful movie about dreams than Michel Gondry, whose “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” captured the inner workings of the human mind in rich, whimsical detail. “The Science of Sleep,” which he again wrote and directed, feels like it could be autobiographical: It’s about a man who spends so much time in his own head that he starts to confuse dreams with reality.
The man is Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a Mexican-born young artist whose French mother has urged him to come back to Paris after the death of his father. His French is terrible, but she says she has a job lined up for him creating art for wall calendars. Turns out the art is pre-produced and all he has to do is cut it out and paste it in the right places; the job is a dreary office nightmare, with employees more interested in preparing for the annual ski weekend than doing their mundane jobs.
And so Stephane escapes into his dreams. Inside his head, we see the little homemade TV show he has going on where he creates dreams the way TV chefs create desserts: a cup of the song you heard on the radio, a splash of the girl you’ve been chasing, and so forth.
Speaking of girls, there’s one in the apartment across the hall. Her name is Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and while at first it’s her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes) that interests Stephane, he soon comes to like the nerdy, endearing Stephanie too. Soon she is in his dreams constantly — and soon he starts to lose track of where the dreams stop and the reality starts.
The dream scenes are extraordinarily well-done. Every element of the set design, cinematography, dialogue and sound blurs the line between realism and fantasy. You’d think dreams would be accurately portrayed more often, considering everyone has them. But how often does a movie dream sequence feel like an actual dream? Almost never. Gondry gets it right with Stephane, with the sort-of-logical plotlines, the exaggerated physical characteristics, and the reality-based settings that somehow become unreal (like the office where you work suddenly having a tilted floor).
But in Gondry’s world, even waking life has elements of magical realism, where imagination and literalism peacefully co-exist. While discussing an art project where cellophane will represent water, Stephane and Stephanie go to the kitchen sink and find cellophane coming out of the tap. They make clouds out of couch-cushion stuffing, too, literally hanging the white fluffy bits in the air. Is this happening for real, or are they just imagining it? Gondry allows for both possibilities. Maybe we, the audience, have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction, too.
The film isn’t as emotionally compelling as “Eternal Sunshine” — Gael Garcia Bernal is adorably likable as the befuddled Stephane, nothing deeper — but it’s a nice companion piece to it. Together, they explore the power of dreams and memory with more childlike goofiness and wistful humor than nearly any other set of films.
A- (1 hr., 45 min.; French and English with subtitles; )