On the heels of two feature-length collaborations with acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and one curious but decidedly uncharacteristic collaboration with comedian Dave Chappelle, inventive cinema trickster Michel Gondry strikes out on his own with this wildly creative and psychically disorienting tale of an emotionally stunted man-child whose rampaging imagination frequently overpowers his ability to reason with the outside world. While his second feature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, served well to pull Gondry back into favor after the perceived failure of his freshman effort, Human Nature, by showing that the skilled music video director was well capable of telling a story that audiences could truly connect with on an emotional level, The Science of Sleep shifts gears to tell the story of Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) -- a character who may not be as likable or sympathetic as Sunshine's protagonist at the onset, but is equally as compelling as the viewer is taken ever-deeper into his hyperactive, growth-stunted psyche. A difficult character to play due in large part to the fact that he seems to have lost his perspective on the outside world following the death of his father, manic artist Stéphane is handled with quirky confidence by Y Tu Mámá También star Bernal -- who instills his socially stifled character with a charming sense of adolescent wonder.
Stéphane's surreal inner-world is a vivid realm of swirling color and unpredictable events that stands in stark contrast to the mundane real-world office that the love-starved protagonist remains reluctantly tethered to despite his distain for the good-natured workers who seem to have sacrificed their creativity in order to make ends meet. Thankfully Gondry himself does not seem to detest this unique collection of characters as much as the childlike Stéphane, because in taking the time to show how stridently they attempt to offset their daily grind by cutting loose outside of the office, the director and first-time solo feature screenwriter displays an assured means of drawing characters that are decidedly more sympathetic and likable than the emotionally aloof Stéphane -- whose floundering relationship with neighbor and struggling artist Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg delivering a playful but distant performance) seems permanently stalled for no tangible reason. It is the supporting players that allow the viewer to identify with the lovelorn artist, and without them The Science of Sleep would be little more a kaleidoscopic spectacle.
As opposed to Sunshine's science fiction underpinnings, The Science of Sleep is a much more organic tale since it concerns itself not with the results of a speculative form of memory alteration but directly with the human mind itself; and this shows in Gondry's assured handling of the material. Where Sunshine was a love story with shades of science fiction, Science is an imagination story with elements of romance. Since The Science of Sleep deals not with an altered form of true reality but an alternate reality into which the protagonist frequently escapes during times of high stress, Gondry makes the wise decision of largely eschewing the digital chicanery of his previous foray into grey matter in favor of a return the lo-fi effects that defined his early music videos. Viewers whose tolerance for shifting realities is quick to be tested by the frequent mixing of dreams and reality are best advised to either make a concerted effort to jettison their need for solid cinematic ground or stay away altogether lest they give themselves an aneurysm attempting to distinguish between the two, because in Gondry's strange universe the point isn't always tied so much to what world his characters currently inhabit as it is their reaction to that world.