The list of semi-mainstream directors who seem to have a direct line to their subconscious is a short one: David Lynch, David Cronenberg or maybe Tim Burton (on a good day). With The Science of Sleep, you can add Michel Gondry to that list. The Frenchman's contributions to his first two films the underrated absurdist comedy Human Nature and the brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were perhaps unfairly overshadowed by those of Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. But in Sleep, Gondry's own obsessions snap into clear focus: arrested-adolescent guys, the boundless compassion of women and the many, many non-food-related uses of tinfoil.
Even those who've only seen Gondry's dreamlike music video work (Björk, the White Stripes, the Foo Fighters, among many others) will recognize his thrift-store aesthetic when they see it. Grown men dress up in fuzzy animal costumes; cops drive cardboard squad cars; felt boats sail away on seas of Saran Wrap. Using the most low-tech methods possible stop-motion animation, blue-screen projection, 2-D optical effects the director not only outdoes filmmakers with 10 times the budget, he creates worlds you've never seen in the movies. Watching a Gondry production is a little like watching a super-deluxe class project created by the most ingenious kindergartener ever.
It makes sense, then, that his first original screenplay is the story of a precocious man-child who literally can't separate fantasy from reality. On paper, Sleep doesn't sound like much: A young artist named Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) moves back to his lonely mother's apartment in Paris, taking a job at a soulless calendar-printing company. The disarming, chain-smoking, coincidentally named Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in next door, and eventually, the two begin a tentative courtship, one complicated by Stéphane's chronic oversleeping and unreliable daydreams, which bleed over into his real life.
It's a testament to Gondry that he can create so much out of so little plot. Stéphane's romantic longings are visualized in a series of dream sequences that may start in drab Parisian streets and offices, but morph into surreal fantasies set in cities made out of construction paper, complete with cotton-ball clouds. He's a frustrating character, not only to his family but to the audience: A would-be "inventor" of one-second time travel machines and 3-D glasses, his success in life is continually undermined by his low self-esteem. At times, he's so awkward as to seem insane, a fact not lost on Stéphanie's ridiculing friend Zoe. But Bernal plays him with so much boyish charm and wonder, to hate him would be like hating an adorable puppy who digs holes in your backyard.
No matter how seemingly disjointed the movie gets, you always feel like there's a divine, benevolent force behind it all. Gondry gives all of his characters such rich inner lives and such direct ways of communicating their desires; instead of being alienating, the movie suggests that we all share some innate childishness that pulls us together. When the forever-thwarted Stéphane and Stéphanie finally do manage to connect over the phone, each in their own bed the moment is one of the most touching and transcendent ones seen at the movies since ... well, since Gondry's own Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In French and Spanish with English subtitles. Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.