Auteur Michel Gondry’s work has always been rife with the manipulation of images, the creation of a counterfeit and controllable reality. His music videos with Bjork, Kylie Minogue, the White Stripes and many others have utilized surrealistic, intentionally artificial imagery that nevertheless leaves an impression on any who see it.
Before his latest film, it was hard to know where Gondry was going with all this fantastical work. But with the dreamscapes of The Science of Sleep, the visionary Gondry manages to take his technique and thought process to another level, illuminating them like never before.
The Science of Sleep–Gondry’s fourth directorial feature, but his first as sole screenwriter–centers on a lonely protagonist, a shy, artistic Mexican named Stephane (Gael García Bernal). After the death of his father, with whom he was living in Mexico, Stephane is duped by his mother into returning to her native France for what she tells him is a lucrative and creatively satisfying job in a calendar factory.
At his first day, however, Stephane’s outlandish artistic visions are greeted with apathy and outright mockery, and he is assigned to typesetting. The only saving grace is his budding friendship with his new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but his childlike antics consistently prevent the two from making an honest romantic connection.
It is interesting to see the sensitive artiste with the unique worldview–obviously, Gondry’s self-portrait–consistently put down for the innocent, Peter Pan-like state in which he lives. Onscreen, Stephane’s girlfriend-to-be, his co-workers, even his otherwise doting mother take time to ridicule his emphasis on emotion and creativity. It’s as if Gondry is trying to emphasize the futility of such a person ever finding success in today’s world, but it is never quite clear who is being indicted here, the dreamer or the world that refuses to accept him.
And then there are those dreams. Throughout the film, Stephane regularly retreats to his dream world. Through visually daring bygone techniques that include old-school special effects, stop-motion animation and rudimentary visual trickery, Gondry makes Stephane’s dreamscape a land we can’t help but envy him for, an infinitely more creative version of the world with bits of Stephane’s “true” reality mixed up with his fantasies through expressionistic and surrealistic art forms.
In The Science of Sleep, surrealism, always at the forefront of Gondry’s style, is given the ultimate stage for its quest to capture what is “more than real.” Stop-motion, the dominant tactic of Stephane’s dreams, is a perfect illustration of this; although it is a form of animation, everything is still real.
When the surrealists attempted to capture the unconscious mind to create the ultimate reality, they discovered that what came out often bordered on (or more often dove freely into) the realm of the absurd. Stephane’s dreams are, if nothing else, certainly absurd, albeit in the most cinematically entertaining way possible.
As that surrealist dabbler Picasso once said, “Art is a lie which tells the truth”; filmmaking is the ultimate way to search for the truth through inherently false images. Gondry’s work takes this falsity and still manages to prove it’s real, since it’s occurring before our very eyes in tangible ways. Although Stephane’s dreams are impossible scenarios and worlds, they still contain core inner truths, his true feelings about others and himself, his honest hopes and fears.
Despite their utter falsity, Gondry’s films still manage to convey some deep level of the reality of our world. And for that, Gondry has cemented his place as a true purveyor of the “more than real” that is the foundation of the surrealism he clearly loves so dearly.
‘The Science of Sleep’ opens at select North Bay theaters on Friday, Sept. 29.
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