Not since Amélie stuck raspberries on all ten fingers has such whimsy wafted off the screen, though Michel Gondry’s hero in the wistful yet delightfully goofy The Science of Sleep proves kinder and gentler than Jeunet’s exhaustingly aggressive gamine. Though set in a realistic Paris (while occasionally morphing into a scissors-and-paste fantasy metropolis), the fanciful narrative slips freely in and out of prosaic storytelling logic, like eyes shifting in REM sleep, as it charts Stéphane’s hilariously tortuous passage from awkward man-boy to still awkward man. Gondry brings out all the puppyish charm of leading man Gael GarcÃa Bernal, who reveals a talent for slapstick that suggests a klutzy Alain Delon (though with a sense of humor added). In one of his liveliest roles yet, the Mexican heartthrob lolls in a bubble bath, hurls himself at solid doors, pushes a piano up a flight of stairs, and nimbly climbs from balcony to balcony. The director’s own music videos come to mind when Bernal plays the drums furiously (clearly channeling Gondry himself) and indeed the star sometimes threatens to turn into a male BjÃ¶rk.
The conflicted and borderline depressive Stéphane begins by sheepishly returning to the nest, not just moving back into his mother’s home but also into his embarrassingly pre-teen bedroom. By day his routine job requires him to paste copy onto cheesecake photos (“I glue paper in a basement all day!”). By night he endures poetic correlatives of the physical displacements afflicting any twelve year-old in the grip of dawning erotic impulses (his feet freeze into ice, his hands swell to grotesque size) as he dreams about the girl next door, equally depressive artist Stéphanie who fashions thrift-shop materials into toytown tableaux (lanky Charlotte Gainsbourg, less flatteringly photographed here than in Dominic Moll’s Lemming, but wonderful just the same). Stéphane and Stéphanie are so mismatched that they’re clearly meant for each other, urged on with earthy support from his co-worker (Alain Chabat cavorting in the Vince Vaughn role as the hero’s shamelessly vulgarian buddy).
Audiences who saw Gondry’s Human Nature (where scientist Tim Robbins trains laboratory mice to choose the proper tiny salad fork at table) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (where romantic indecision pushes Jim Carrey into pre-pubescent regression) will recognize Gondry’s continuing obsession with behavior and childhood states, though this time he’s working solo, without Charlie Kaufman at the typewriter. Using technology that’s evolved barely a step beyond Méliès, Gondry plays perceptual games that rhyme natural phenomena with dream capabilities. Thus, Stéphane invents an absurdly limited time travel machine that jumps only one second into the past or the future. In his endless dream state, cellophane flows like water, a blanket has animated wild animals scampering across it, and cotton puffs levitate into clouds, but only if you play just the right chord on your piano.
As a cultural record, The Science of Sleep usefully brings to the surface a robust yet barely acknowledged undercurrent of American cinema, the Peter Pan conception of manhood as a Long Adolescence, dating back to the Star Wars movies but now powering pop hits like The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and all Jackass movies of the past, present and future. When Stéphane dream-broadcasts from his corrugated cardboard TV-studio, he’s his own Anchorman, mining an emotional self-indulgence that prioritizes the individual while it shuts out responsibility to the community. For all this movie’s charm, isn’t it time to explore the art of being fully awake?