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Cute to Kill

Puerile Juvenilia Runs Rampant Through Michel Gondry’s Latest Flick

NAY: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gael Garcia Bernal aren't hot to trot.

The Science of Sleep

Director:Michel Gondry
Cast:Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Release Date:2006
Genre:Drama, Fantasy

Opens Sept. 29 at the Charles Theatre

By Ian Grey | Posted 9/27/2006

Unencumbered by any plotting beyond a single romantic riff and sated with grating thumbnails as characters, The Science of Sleep exists mainly as an excuse for director Michel Gondry to smoosh together half-recalled dreams and the lesser-baked ideas that didn’t make it into his Daft Punk, Beck, or White Stripes videos. A cloying confection of candied whimsy and exclusive self-referentiality, Sleep features cutie du jour Gael García Bernal doing that lost boy/Johnny Depp thing that’s irresistible to teen girls with Livejournals featuring Edward Scissorhands icons but supremely annoying to the grown-up population at large. Sleep is too visually inventive to be completely unendurable, but it does lead to the singular experience of feeling simultaneously bored, annoyed, and vaguely amused at the occasional zinger. As for those looking for a repeat of the Gondry-directed, Charlie Kaufman-scripted Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, simply rent that movie again.

Stripped of anti-linear hoo-ha, Sleep is about Stéphane (Bernal), an arty type in an eggplant-colored neo-mod suit, who moves back to his parents’ Paris home when his magician father passes away and his mother (Miou-Miou, looking great) promises him a new job. The job turns out to be mindless cut-and-paste work for a calendar company. It does allow Stéphane to enjoy much daydreaming, which permits Gondry to indulge some lo-fi effects preciousness, such as Stéphane "flying" in a water tank. In particular, Stéphane imagines that he hosts his own TV program, in which he prances about on an egg carton and cardboard set, plays drums horribly, creates a recipe for the Science’s titular methodology, and participates in various juvenile capers.

An androgyne-cute girl named Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge, and not without a waifishly more femme early Patti Smith charisma) moves in next door, and Stéphane, despite missing her name’s slight similarity to his own, decides that he’s found a kindred soul, and spends the rest of the movie ping-ponging between dream and reality trying to woo her.

Along the way, Sleep is littered with references to the filmmaker’s life, none of which enhance anything for a viewer who doesn’t have the press notes--not that they fill in any blanks. The movie’s approach to Stéphane and Stéphanie’s courtship is personified by a sequence where, apropos of nothing, the sweet girl becomes a cruel, taunting harpy. Is this an illumination of Stéphane’s fear of women and intimacy? A dream? Reality? Feel free to guess.

Clearly, the story’s not the thing here. Instead we get images and skits. We see Stéphane’s discomfort at working an office copy machine manifest itself as his hands becoming elephant-huge; all thumbs, get it? We see Stéphane create a "time machine" from computer innards and Polaroid flashcubes, which allows him to flash forward and backward in his and Stéphanie’s relationship--which is kind of neat, actually. And we see lots of purposely unprofessional animation, from blatant Jan Svankmajer-isms (a rebellious machine razor that makes Stéphane’s boss grow hair) to an impressive living city of agitated cardboard. Meanwhile--and oddly for a guy who is all about the visuals--the thing in Science that most closely approaches wit is the way Gondry’s multilingual characters constantly miscommunicate in French and English subtitles.

For a while, Gondry entertains a fairly strict dream/reality structure, but by the time Stéphane defiantly shouts, "Death to organization!," it’s less a Burroughs-ian sound byte than a declaration of the filmmaker’s preferred methods. More off-putting are the movie’s iffy flirtations with seriousness and relentless self-assurances of its own hipster cred.

Turns out, Stéphane is into "Disasterology"--that is, creating childish drawings of assorted recent, real calamities. He runs through his collection for his boss, but stops short of the assumed edgy payoff: a neat-o outsider-art version of Sept. 11. You can guess that at some juncture grownups reminded Gondry that "zany," "whimsical," and "Sept. 11" still don’t work in the same sentence.

On that hipster front, though, we see Stéphane fall in a miserable heap in front of a Smiths poster--an obvious, cheap riff that invites us to laugh at our supposed hero as a sub-Morrissey mope. (Actually, he’d become insufferable long before.) Expect The Science of Sleep to be lauded as a "singular vision." And for once it’ll be true, as the movie really has only one audience--its maker.

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