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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

 

ModFab On...The Science of Sleep

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Emma de Caunes, Aurelia Petit, Pierre Vaneck and Miou-Miou
written by Michel Gondry
directed by Michel Gondry
106 minutes
rated R
opens September 22nd in NY and LA

A film as rich in imagination as The Science of Sleep is nearly impossible to hate. It exhibits a dazzling theatricality and refreshing lack of contrivance, both of which can now be called trademarks of the offbeat French director Michel Gondry. Well-performed and packed with ideas, the film is deeply passionate about the power of the unfettered imagination found in dreamtime, and the all-too-real damage it can cause in our waking hours.

Nearly impossible to hate, yes...but equally difficult to love. Like its predecessor Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in both spirit and in the career of director Gondry), The Science of Sleep is a romantic comedy about social misfits struggling to connect. Where Eternal Sunshine found an incurable romantic's heart beating amidst its technobabble and stop-motion photography, however, Gondry's latest effort stays firmly in its head, exiling the romance to a bumbling, shallow series of increasingly inane and unsympathetic arguments. The lack of any genuine emotional center makes The Science of Sleep feel distant, cold, and restrictive; even in the gleam of its overwhelming creativity, its inability to connect dulls the shine.

The sleeper in question is Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a magnetic oddball illustrator whose overactive mind has been entertaining him since childhood. As he sleeps, he travels to "Stephane TV," a mythic television program that allows him to subconsciously process his experiences in rich, metaphoric detail. By day, however, he works in a dull Parisian copy office and takes advice on women from the boorish Guy (Alain Chabat). Both realities begin to shift, however, when Stephane meets his new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose a bit of an oddball in her own right.

Yes, The Science of Sleep is a movie where the romantic characters are named Stephane and Stephanie: cutesy and pretentious passing as smart and sweet. The theatrical elements eventually wear out their novelty and charm, which leaves little more than a tediously shallow melodrama about socially inept twentysomethings. Even as the visual fireworks of Gondry's mind keep you attentive, his clumsy stutterings about love and honesty are painfully underdeveloped.

Perhaps the semi-autobiographical nature of The Science of Sleep kept writer/director Gondry from connecting to the pain and pleasures of new romance. His stand-in, the talented and dynamic Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien), has a deft facility with the shifts in style, only wavering in the film's final, unfortunate confrontation (a moment, sadly, that renders Stephane completely unsympathetic). Bernal's co-star, Gainsbourg (21 Grams), is less adaptable; waifish and delicate, she is simply too insubstantial an actress to manage the film's quirks and mysteries.

It is a hard to love the film more than academically; with all of is visual dynamism and admirable risk, The Science of Sleep never fulfills its implicit promise to charm. Virginia Woolf once called insanity an "exquisite dream of fire." If Gondry's contention is true -- that overactive fantasy lives left unchecked verge on insanity -- The Science of Sleep could use a little more of that exquisite, fiery dream. -- Gabriel Shanks

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