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Quirky visuals elicit empathy with troubled soul

The Science of Sleep: 106 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Michel Gondry. Starring: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg website

Quirky visuals render empathy with troubled soulIn reviewing music video genius Michel Gondry’s debut as both writer and director, it would be remiss to not first mention his former collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman—a writer whose preference for esoteric, highbrow premises (think Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) presage the concept-heavy nature of The Science of Sleep.

Of Kaufman’s five films to date, the two directed by Gondry—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Human Nature—are arguably the most affecting. Not that they’re any less cerebral, but because they also contain a hefty dose of pathos; they’re 'heart' films as well as 'head' films, and Kaufman can probably thank Gondry for this fact.

On the other hand, perhaps Gondry should be on his knees in gratitude to Kaufman for paving the way to The Science of Sleep, which is even more immersed within the colourful waters of the human psyche than any of Kaufman’s films. It’ll no doubt find a ready-made audience among Kaufman fans, even if ultimately it’s a less fulfilling film.

The plot centres on—or, more accurately, takes place inside the mind of—frustrated artist Stephane (Bernal, exuding a gawky vulnerability that’s a far cry from the quiet charisma or sensual confidence that’s typified most of his roles to date). Stephane has an overactive imagination and is prone to bizarre dreams and daydreams; the fact he’s working in a tedious calendar 'design' job further fuels to his feral fantasies.

To make matters worse, Stephane is in love with a kooky neighbour named, significantly, Stephanie (Gainsbourg), and as his advances go unrequited, he finds he’s having more and more trouble distinguishing his dreams from his waking reality.

Quirky visuals render empathy with troubled soulThere’s no easy way out for the audience, either. Gondry doesn’t flag where the dreams start and end, so although sometimes it’s obvious that Stephane is dreaming (such as when he finds himself fighting off his inane workmates with a pair of oversized hands) it’s often hard to distinguish between the two.

The narrative thread gets lost in the midst of the Freudian frippery, and I guarantee you won’t be able to pick it up again. But while this will leave some viewers cold it will no doubt delight others, and leave them itching to attempt The Science of Sleep again.

Visually, the film is beautifully realised. Gondry is a fan of in-camera effects and, during The Science of Sleep’s dream sequences, creates some engaging and imaginative visual effects without resorting to CGI. One particular highlight involves a bustling cardboard city literally springing up before Stephane’s eyes.

Special effects aside, the strength of the film—and the thing that helps it transcend being merely an exercise in quirky visuals—is that Gondry manages, as he did with Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine, to wring plenty of emotion out of his high-concept premise. In particular, you’ll feel plenty of empathy for both the troubled Stephane, and for Stephanie—the hapless recipient of his strange and awkward affections.



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