Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Science of Sleep

I've been looking forward to this movie for a long time, and that can sometimes skew your perception of a film. The trailer and publicity material creates a movie in your mind that doesn't always match up to the one on screen. In some ways, this film was exactly what I was expecting, but on the whole, it was pretty surprising. I was expecting something very fantastic in an upbeat way, a journey through the wonder of dream worlds, but what's on screen is a brutally real drama about a man's difficulty in adjusting to the emotional needs of reality. It winds up as an even tougher film than Eternal Sunshine, because in this case, the couple never even gets to have the good times that Joel and Clementine did, rather it's a potential true love that's snuffed out before it can even begin.

When Eternal Sunshine came out, very few people saw it, but in the years since, it's become the go to favorite movie for the college crowd, and a large part of that is the relatability of the film. It may have some weird stuff, but the emotional core of the film has something for everyone. The film has a lot of Gondry in it, but in a lot of ways, Science of Sleep feels like he took those themes he'd already explored and decided to address them in a truly personal context. I hesitate to draw a one hundred percent correlation between Stephane and Gondry, but to me, this felt like the most damning autobiographical film since Fosse's All That Jazz. Both films allow the lead character, clearly a spin on the director, to show off what he's good at, but end up punishing their emotional inadaquecies rather than celeberating their virtures.

One of the central images of creativity is the suffering artist, a lot of people give the impression that you can't make truly meaningful art until you've experienced emotional pain. I think that's true in some respects, total happiness would also mean no desire to move forward and do more. An artist is someone who isn't happy unless he's working on something. As someone who does make films, I find it difficult to see what other people could do to derive the same satisfaction as I get from making films. But, in punishing himself/the character, I think Gondry may be taking this too far. Clearly, this is someone who's at the top of his field, an incredibly respected filmmaker, but the film leads us to believe he's got some guilt about not doing something more real with his life, with spending his time trapped in this fusion of dream and reality. But, is his intention in punishing the character really to punish himself?

All that and I've barely even touched on the film itself. Looking at this film as the followup to Eternal Sunshine, the most immediately notable difference is that the boundary between dream and reality has become much more fluid. Eternal used the memory device as a device to allow for flights of fancy, here the switches between dream and reality are generally unmotivated and sometimes not even apparent. The film immerses you in the perceptory experience of its main character, so that you're never sure exactly what is real and what is just in his head. I think the film succeeds in keeping a coherent emotional arc, so that even though you're not sure exactly what happened at times, you always know how it affected the character.

The opening half hour or so is a bit deceptive in its lightness. There's clearly some sadness in the death of Stephane's father, but it's here that we get the most fun dream bits, as well as the great comedy stuff at the office. I think Guy was hilarious, basically anything he did was funny, most notably his appearance at the club, prompting Stephane to say "He's punk." I liked how the three office workers were the focus of Stephane's dreams, they gave a continuity to the fantasies. The scenes with the stop motion animation going on through the office windows were pure Gondry, a moment only he can do. The cardboard city was a particularly notable visual.

It's with the introduction of Stephanie that we get to the main story. In this film, there's the outlandish dream sequences, but there's also a crushing naturalism to the scenes set in the "real world." Even in the dream sequences, there's a lo-finess that keeps things feeling real. When I saw him speak, Gondry talked about how he didn't want any CG, and I think that was a brilliant choice. The flying scenes were accomplished by having Gael swim with projected backgrounds behind him, and it winds up looking as good as any movie flying scene I've encountered. With most CG, particularly stuff meant to dazzle rather than blend in, there's a tendency to respect it more as good CG than to approach it as something extraordinary and real as the characters do. So, even the best stuff takes you out of the story. The Illusionist is a great example of this, the CG used in the magic trick sequences meant that we couldn't share the audience's astonishment, we're aware of how the trick is done. But, this film uses totally unique techniques that do make you ponder how they did that, but more importantly, are just visually amazing on their own, and those amazing visuals fit perfectly into the realistic world in the rest of the film. It makes it easy to keep minimum separation between the dream world and the real world.

Anyway, the first scene with Stephanie perfectly exemplifies the film's core theme, the idea that this dreamer is too naive and childlike to make it in reality. The two women talk about him while he's right there and delight in messing with him. I'm not sure if he actually doesn't understand, or just pretends not to, but either way, he does nothing to challenge their assumption. Throughout the film, Stephane's childlike qualities are played up, from having him sleep in his childhood bedroom, to literally having his mom move in with him. He seems to be regressing as time moves forward. Guy is in the film as a contrast to this, the ultimate man, someone who happily works his boring job, then goes out at night to find someone to fuck. At one point, Stephane says there's more to life than women, something that Guy would dispute. I think this is also Gondry commenting on the nature of being an artist, he expresses himself through his art, partially because he is too shy to go after girls.

If you watch the "I've Been Twelve Forever" documentary on his Director's Series DVD, you can see a lot of the emotional qualities that inform Stephane here, the conern about having big hands, the invention of wacky things, and most importantly that lack of self confidence that can cause a retreat from reality. There, Gondry talks about a dream he had where he was back in his childhood home, and that may have informed the setting of this film.

In Stephanie, Stephane sees someone he thinks is like him, an introverted, artistic type. However, because he was more interested in Zoe at first, he winds up sabotaging the relationship right at its beginning. He doesn't become aware of his attraction to Stephanie until they start to make art together, in a truly magical scene. I love Stephanie putting the clouds into orbit above them. The cellophane sink is another really cool image. Throughout the film, there's a ton of these small, but very cool moments that help deepen one's immersion in this partricular reality.

One of the best sequences in the film is the bathtub letter part. I love Stephane flying over the town holding the oversized letter, and the book made out of it is great too. But, the most emotionally potent part is Stephane realizing that he really had put the letter under her door, and running to try to get it. I love the way Gondry initially leads us to believe that Stephane has averted the crisis, but later we find out that Stephanie did read the letter, and it informs a lot of where their relationship goes. I think Stephanie feels like Stephane won't be serious about her, he was clearly interested in Zoe at first, and she believes that he will eventually hurt her. So, she refuses to let herself get emotionally attached to him, and they both miss out on the chance for something that's potentially very meaningful.

That's one of the respects where this differs from your typical romance, we're used to the love that can never last, but in this case, it never even starts. It's a bit ambiguous how far along they actually get, but the impression I got was that Stephane and Stephanie were constantly close to a relationship but never actually got to the point of dating. Their first date would have been the meeting at the bar, but it never happened. That sequence was so heartbreaking, we see Stephane's personal doubts, manifested in the dream figures, stop him from actually making it to the bar. In the process, he does exactly what Guy says Stephanie is doing to him. Rather than take the risk of being hurt when she's not at the bar, he decides to avoid that pain and just not go. Seeing Stephanie sitting alone at the coffee house, a moment removed from the subjectivity, is one of the toughest to take because we know then that she was ready to go for it, but he let her down.

Before this, there's a sequence that's rather ambiguous in its navigation of the dream/reality dichotomy, specifically the bit with the calendar debut. I don't think Stephane's calendar actually became a success, but it seems that at some point he did see Stephanie dancing with someone else, causing him to drink. I'm guessing this happened because it's emotionally essential to the film, and we do see her walk into his room wearing the same dress she was in the party sequence.

In the end, it's Stephane's own behavior that ruins his chances with Stephanie. He behaves like a child, asking her to marry him semi-seriously, then getting mad when she dances with another guy. He makes her pony run, but he can't walk into the cafe. He's a character so lost in his own delusions that it becomes an ego thing, he can't escape his own head to really understand someone else. At one point, Stephane says that Stephanie reminds him of his dad. I'm thinking this is part of what motivates his irrational behavior around her. He's the one who's so afraid to go through the pain of losing someone he cares about agian, he either wants her forever, or doesn't want her at all. So, the fear of loss that Guy attributes to Stephanie actually seems to be Stephane's flaw.

Unable to make things happen with Stephanie, Stephane decides to return to Mexico. But before that, we get one final argument between the two. This scene is the most oppressively real in the film, as Stephanie tears into the emotional dream walls that Stephane has built up around himself, and Stephane continually sabotages any progress he's making with his crude humor. It ends with Stephane in the ultimate retreat into childhood, curling up in her bed, refusing to leave. Eventually she joins him, and we segue into one final fantasy sequence. The two of them ride the horse, hop on the boat and sail off.

This is an ambiguous ending, but the feeling I got was distinctly sad. I think Stephanie will tolerate his sadness for a bit longer, but soon she'll throw him out, he'll go back to Mexico and any potential for the two of them will remain unrealized. So, one could read the horse going across the river as any chance of their relationship disappearing. That's the impression I got, just because the emotional and thematic drive of the film didn't indicate any chance of a happy ending. Stephane's behavior just wasn't a point where he could handle a real relationship and Stephanie was unwilling ot risk embarking on one with him.

This is a truly great film that's unlike anything I've ever seen before. The blend of crazy, dream visuals with crushingly real emotion works wonderfully and I think it'll be even easier to get lost in the film's world with more viewings. I was surprised by how similar the film is to Eternal Sunshine, but while that one was primarily Charlie Kaufman with some Gondry, this is all Gondry and it's one of the most singularly personal films I've ever seen. Gondry has taken his life and all his work to date and poured it all into this movie. That may mean a sometime lack of coherence, but it also means a consistent string of visual delights. Add on top of this wonderful acting from everyone involved, grounding the fanciful stuff in an emotional reality. If nothing else, the film proves that Charlotte Gainsbourg will be remembered for more than just Lemon Incest.

The film wasn't what I expected, but it still lived up to my expectations. I'm really happy that Gondry's found a way to transfer the energy of his music videos into a feature format, maintaining the visual inventiveness, but adding a much deeper emotional base. I'm not sure if it's better than Eternal Sunshine, but it's definitely right up there with it.

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Mikko Pihkoluoma said...

I love the comparison to All That Jazz but in some ways I find it lacking. Whereas All That Jazz is a kind of autobiographical dream of how I'm going to live this life to the very end, both Eternal Sunshine and Science of Sleep are stories from the past.

I'm quite certain the reason Eternal Sunshine is so poignant is that it's most definitely constructed mainly out of Kaufman's own memories and experiences with relatioships. It's a very autobiographical film, much like Science of Sleep, but eventually more about Kaufman than Gondry (although I vaguely remember that they discuss this in the commentary and Gondry reveals he did add some things into it).

What makes me even more certain Science of Sleep is more about past is that Stephane not only appears, but also acts like he's not a very old character. I doubt very much Gondry could make such a film if the character was mainly representing who he is at the moment rather than how he was 10 years ago... Although I think it's more probable that it's a mixture of different things from his past and his present.

ES vs. SoS - what I loved about Science of Sleep was that while it was very similar to Eternal Sunshine it worked in an utterly different way. While I think Kaufman's scripts are always marvellous and lend themselves to some great visuals, Science of Sleep was more like a movie that was actually built for the visuals, and it was more the images than the story that drove the film.

Patrick said...

I definitely agree, I wouldn't be shocked if Science of Sleep is drawn from something very similar that happened to Gondry in the past, and is his way to deal with that. I read that he did get a job similar to the calendar one, where he couldn't really express his creativity. So, I'm guessing most of the issues here were ones he was dealing with back before he became a successful director.