One of the words routinely used to describe the latest offbeat fantasia from director Michel Gondry is "childlike." The reviewers who use the term are usually alluding to the picture's playful spirit and whimsical special effects. I find the word apropos as well, though for a different reason. The filmmaker dispenses with narrative logic, plotting and other traditional storytelling elements in order to allow the movie's focus to fall more fully on his playful, whimsical notions. Gondry unveils one after another at the expense of telling a coherent story. The result: He impresses less as a creative visionary than as a precocious child making endless demands for attention.
A better title for The Science of Sleep, in fact, might have been Look at This: Now Look at What I Came Up With After That. It certainly would have reflected more accurately the sense one eventually gets that the movie's true subject is the fellow who dreamed it up, rather than any of the characters we meet on screen. Gael Garcia Bernal, for example, plays a thirtysomething artist named Stephane, though his real role seems to be that of stand-in for Gondry.
To the extent the film has a premise, it's this: Stephane has returned from Mexico to his childhood home in Paris following the death of his father. His mother, who lives in a different apartment with her new lover, has arranged for him to work for a company that produces calendars. Shortly after he arrives, a charming and creative young woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in across the hall from him. Her name - prepare to have your mind blown - is Stephanie. Get it? Stephane . . . Stephanie? No? That's OK. As it turns out, it doesn't mean anything anyway.
Stephane is witty and inventive, but he has this problem. As described by his mother, it's a tendency to "invert his dream life with his waking life." This may sound thrillingly metaphysical, but what it comes down to is this: Sometimes what we see happening on screen turns out not to have really happened. Stephane has merely dreamed it.
His real problem is not so much that he inverts but that he forgets. He periodically loses track of what's actually happened versus what he's merely imagined in his sleep. He's also borderline narcoleptic, often napping at home when he should be making calendars and at other equally improbable points in his day.
Initially, at least, Gondry's imagining of Stephane's dream life is endearingly loopy and low-tech. Most of it takes the form of a surreal TV talk show in which Bernal's character is the host. He plays his own theme song, delivers a stream-of-consciousness monologue, interviews guests - figures from his waking life - and even presides over a cooking segment in which he demonstrates the recipe for a dream. The camera and the rest of the studio are constructed largely of cardboard and tape. Things are off-kilter. They suggest a kid's outsized handiwork. They suggest Gondry may have watched "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" a few too many times.
When he's not dreaming, Stephane is trying to win the heart of his new neighbor. He stops by and proposes they work on playful, childlike projects together - on one occasion transforming her living room into a 3-D cartoon with cotton clouds he keeps aloft by playing certain notes on her piano. Oops, that was probably a dream. Another time he drops by to present her with a gift - a Hermanesque contraption that allows the user to travel back or forward one second in time. Hmm. Probably a dream, too. On yet another occasion, he breaks into her apartment when she's out, in order to grab a broken toy horse, take it back to his place and repair it. Later she phones to thank him for his thoughtfulness as the little mechanical animal gallops about the room. Never mind. Another dream.
And then he's surprised when love doesn't bloom. Gainsbourg's character, who seems receptive early on, grows bewildered and bored. She's clearly perplexed by his strange behavior and understandably frustrated by his inability to distinguish between real life and fantasy. Eventually he becomes so mopey she's forced to explain to him, "You know, women don't find it attractive when a guy cries." Unfortunately, he fails to take the hint and withdraws further into his own world.
The Science of Sleep attempts to duplicate the triumph of imagination that marked his previous film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but fails. Both movies have style. Both have lots of interesting ideas and talented casts. What Sunshine had that Science doesn't, however, are an emotional core and a script by Charlie Kaufman. These differences are not incidental. They're the difference between art and artsiness.
In his latest, the director decides to go it alone, gambling that whimsy with a big enough budget will compensate for the absence of a coherent story. Gondry does succeed in offering his audience a showcase for his cleverness - one that borders on the self-indulgent. If he thinks he's done anything more, he's dreaming.