Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Captivating and confusing - Michel Gondry's "The Science of Sleep"

After seeing "The Science of Sleep," I emerged from the theater feeling as though I might be in a dream, whether mine or someone else's. For all its twists, turns and seeming non-sequiturs, "The Science of Sleep" is an arresting, kaleidoscopic trip of a movie.

With its brilliant color palette and its overlapping layers of dreams and "reality," the action of the film is seen through a series of monochrome cels moving back in forth in space like a series of "Pong" paddles. Sometimes we see through just one color, just one perspectives; at other times, we see through several cels at once, with multiple levels of "dreams" superimposed over the action. We venture into the staging area of dreams, complete with cameras, monitors and incidental music by a backing band, all operated by one man - Stephane, a half-French/half-Mexican aspiring artist who presents his dreams as "télévision éducative." Stephane's eyes, opened and shut with venetian blinds controlled by the "ringmaster" Stephane in his mind - are our windows into his life in Paris and the levels of "dream-life" laid over it.

But with the knowledge, imparted by Stephane's mother, that he has always confused dreams for reality, we see the feints and distortions of his dream-life in a different light. These diversions - the large hands, the assemblage of co-workers all speaking in Stephane's own voice, the landscapes constructed from toilet paper tubes and cardboard - are all the products of the mind of a troubled young man. Even at the film's baseline "reality," elements of fantasy, like the "one-second time travel machine" or the mechanical animation of Stephanie's pony, are present.

But even with these elements of - for lack of a less-loaded term, "magical realism" - the characters at the heart of the film's "reality" are utterly believable. Stephane is a young man, unhappy with his job and struggling to adapt to living in a new city and to speaking a new language. Stephanie is a lovely, slightly insecure artist, easily wounded by dishonesty. Stephane's mother is well-intentioned but slightly domineering. Strangely absent are reflections on Stephane's dead father, but better that his character be absent than thrusted into Freudian-Oedipal interpretations of Stephane's dream-life.

The film doesn't present sleep or dreams in an exactly scientific fashion; it doesn't break down their elements, doesn't discuss the influence of brain chemistry or delve into psychoanalytic interpretation. The opening scene, in the "Stephane TV" studio inside the protagonist's head, seems a more apt description of the formulation of dreams: many different ingredients, thrown together haphazardly, stirred or otherwise agitated. What results seems the product of chance, the bubbling of different elements to the surface. Through all the convolution, the film retains an important level of consistency: everything is filtered through the lens of Stephane, who with his believable, trying past and his yearnings for the future, is an Everyman, both due to and inspite of his delusions.

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