Friday, 26 January 2007

The Science of Sleep - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriter: Michel Gondry
Running Time: 105 mins
Certificate: 15
Released: 15th February

Michel Gondry is truly an environmentally friendly filmmaker. He’s never found a household object he couldn’t recycle into something magical. He took Lego and made the most memorable music video of recent years for The White Stripes’ Fell in Love with a Girl. Now in his feature film, The Science of Sleep, he conjures entire cityscapes from discarded toilet roll tubes, vast oceans from scraps of cellophane, and animals from left over felt and fabric.

The creative overload in play here is perhaps a response to those who solely praised screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for the success of Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Here Gondry writes and directs his own semi-autobiographical film about a young man, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), who lives his life with dreams and reality reversed. A, whisper it, Kaufman-esque tale sees Stephane return to Paris after the death of his father to take a job at a calendar-production company arranged by his mother, which unfortunately turns out to be duller than expected. Once there he meets and falls in love with the charming Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and tries to bring her into his fantasy world.

While the creative divorce from Kaufman may seem superficial on the surface, what The Science of Sleep lacks is the heart that Kaufman brought to Eternal Sunshine. In that whimsical romance Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet see into the future abyss of their relationship but are willing to take the journey again regardless. Here Bernal and Gainsbourg don’t seem capable of making the same leap; Stephanie seems to tolerate the man-child Stephane rather than enjoy his mad-cap company, which in turn forces the film to limp over the finish line in a muddled finale.

Yet what a visual journey the film is. Gondry utilises techniques that go as far back as George Melies, including stop-motion animation, backwards-run footage, over- and under-cranked sequences and extensive model and puppetry work. In the opening sequence, and several times throughout, we visit Stephane’s mind, dubbed StephanTV; a makeshift studio contructed from arts and crafts left overs. Eschewing the slick and photoreal CGI of blockbuster cinema does not hinder the experience, instead Gondry's low-fi effects are charming and give the film an organic visual texture.

The versatile Bernal impressively holds the whole thing together, striking just the right balance between bewildered and engaging, and adding his own charming screen persona to the mix. Yet Gondry, like Stephan, seems more comfortable playing with his ‘one second’ time machine and galloping on a fabric horse rather than engaging in real human interaction. The Science of Sleep may be emotionally shallow but the level of inventiveness and wit on display in Gondry’s cinematic daydream is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.
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