Gael García Bernal as Stéphane
Charlotte Gainsbourg as Stéphanie
Alain Chabat as Guy
Miou-Miou as Chrstine Miroux
Emma de Caunes as Zoé
Aurélia Petit as Martine
Sacha Bourdo as Serge
Pierre Vaneck as Mr. Pouchet
Stéphane Metzger as Sylvain
Alain de Moyencourt as Gérard
Inigo Lezzi as Mr. Persinnet
Yvette Petit as Ivana
Jean-Michel Bernard as Piano-playing Policeman
Directed by Michel Gondry
It’s kind of weird and very French, but don’t let that scare you. “The Science of Sleep” is well worth your time.
Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) is one of those sensitive artistic types who suffers from living more in a fantastic dream world than the real one. In Stéphane’s case, it’s especially true. He often acts out his dream world in his sleep and has difficulty separating dreams and reality — a problem that’s exacerbated by what appears to be a mild form of narcolepsy — which makes him an extremely creative but frustrating person to deal with as his co-workers and next-door neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg) discover. They can hardly understand anything he’s saying, partly because of his bad French, but mainly because they don’t have the entire context of his conversations available.
Bernal is very good in a role that could easily be annoying (and often has been in other films). Stéphane is in some ways a man-child. He’s quite capable of interacting with other adults in an adult fashion, and certainly has adult desires, but he doesn’t quite understand the adult world and often falls into behavior patterns of a twelve-year-old, particularly when embarrassed. He even sleeps in his old childhood bed while he lives in his mother’s home, who importantly isn’t around and hasn’t really been a part of Stéphane’s life for a long time. It’s quite possible Stéphane’s dream reality is a self-made protection from that particular pain.
It’s very whimsical to be sure, and whimsy is very hard to pull off on screen, anchored as it is to the image of the real world, but Bernal and director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) manage it fairly well. The dream world and its inhabitants are created out of stop-motion puppets that generally refer to something we’ve already seen in the real world, a point of reference necessary to keep everything working together. More importantly, and more difficult, that same sensibility is carried over into the real world, making everything feel of a piece. Transitions between the two, extremely well laid out at first, lessen as the story unfolds until dream and waking world become as hard to distinguish for the audience as they do for Stéphane.
In stark contrast to whom there is dream Stéphane, a charismatic and engaging talk show host of sorts (the topic of the show, as ever, being about Stéphane’s life). Stéphane’s mind is symbolized as a children’s television studio — built entirely out of cardboard down to the cardboard camera’s — with a pair of windows that look out throw Stéphane’s eyes at his world. From his cozy studio dream, Stéphane comments on both his real and imagined worlds and the cross-pollination between the two. As the film goes on, the differences between the two become less and Stéphane begins to take on some of his dream alter-ego’s good and bad qualities in his attempt to romance his equally shy neighbor Stéphanie. The constant shifts in behavior and attitude are, as one would expect, extremely confusing for poor Stéphanie.
Gainsbourg’s Stéphanie is the other half of what makes “Science” really go. She is a sensitive, creative soul who has erected her own defenses against the harshness of the real world, though not quite to the degree that Stéphane has. She’s afraid to tell him the truth of her feelings, afraid of him, because of the power he has to hurt her as he does early in the film when he unknowingly snubs her in favor of her vivacious best friend (Emma de Caunes).
It takes a little bit before it gets going, but once it does, it’s right on the money… assuming your currency is made up of whimsical French romances. If not, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere, but you’ll be missing a treat.