Less a traditional narrative film than an often random-seeming collection of emotions, The Science of Sleep is likely to cleave viewers' reactions right down the center, with gushing praise on one side and the Grinches with no sense of whimsy on the other. As for me, I think it's a mess, but an endearing, beautiful, hopelessly honest mess supported by a pair of performances so natural that they draw you in and clutch you to their flipping, flopping hearts.
Like his compatriot Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is in love with love and aches to perfect its possibilities on the screen. Gondry isn't content with the theatrical nuances of l'amour fou ' he wants to immerse his characters (and by extension, the audience) in the real thing, or as close to real as possible. In The Science of Sleep he does this by reverting to a playful dream state, in which a lonely everyman named Stephane (Gael GarcÃa Bernal) falls for his new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who at first resists his attentions. Stephane is so shy that he has to approach the object of his affections from his dreams, during which we are treated to a delightfully silly and all-too-accurate measure of what the lovelorn heart does while the more pragmatic mind is otherwise occupied.
Gondry employs cardboard sets, construction-paper cityscapes, stuffed animals that gallop across the floor, and all sorts of trickery in his attempt to replicate the spiraling feeling of falling into a new love. At times, it's unclear if what we are witnessing is reality or one of Stephane's nighttime interludes, which makes for a truly trippy movie-going experience. The Science of Sleep is confusing, painful and ultimately, thanks to the unfettered talents of Bernal and Gainsbourg, utterly rewarding. And if that's not love, what is?