Navel-gazing director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) wears his developmentally arrested heart on his sleeve, pants and forehead in the most self-indulgent movie of 2006. Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel) plays Stephane Miroux, an insecure and childish graphic artist who alternately woos, stalks and terrorizes his neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg—21 Grams) who has the misfortune of living in the same Paris apartment building that Stephane moves to from Mexico after his father’s death.
Stephane’s crippling immaturity prevents him from pursuing a sexual relationship with Stephanie, so he substitutes arts and crafts overtures as a form of romantic connection. Gondry intercuts plenty of Pee Wee Herman-inspired animated sequences to underscore his oh-so-precious view of puppy love infatuation.
The Online Film Critics Society (of which I am a member) rated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as the best film of the last decade. It’s a perplexing and embarrassing event that points out how desperate most critics are to praise any film with a whiff of Fellini-induced free will imagination. It delineates a great divide between how decorative visual compositions are perceived as more substantial than character studies set against social issues.
The Science of Sleep opens with a reverie sequence where Stephane dreams of hosting a public access brand of one-man TV show from a cardboard set with egg carton soundproofing. Stephane jumps around the one-room scenery playing a drum kit one minute before divulging his “recipe for dreams” that includes “events of the day, random thoughts, memories, songs” and, as we later discover, an unobtainable sex object in the guise of Stephanie. The ever-watchable Gael Garcia Bernal captures our attention at the outset as a seemingly intelligent character that we become increasingly distanced from due to his spiraling inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Stephane arrives at his childhood residence in Paris at the behest of his mother Christine (Miou-Miou) who convinces him that a job waits with a local calendar publisher that will utilize his distinctly home-schooled sense of graphic art. He paints disasters and calls it “disasterology.” Stephane’s low self-esteem relegates him to accept a menial typesetting job with the calendar printer after the owner makes it clear that they have no interest in Stephane’s dumb illustrations.
On his way into his apartment building, Stephane meets his new neighbor Stephanie and her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes). Stephane immediately falls for Zoe but doesn’t let on that he lives in the building as he makes friends with the girls. Later he realizes that the hip Zoe is out of his league and that he has more in common with the artsy-fartsy Stephanie.
Stephane shows Stephanie an appliance he’s created that allows the wearer to “see life in 3-D,” forgetting that life is already three-dimensional. The pair agrees to build a diorama around a broken toy horse that Stephanie found on the street. The horse becomes a pivotal plot point when Stephane sneaks into Stephanie’s apartment and inadvertently exposes the depth of his confused obsession.
What’s astonishing is that audiences and critics embrace Gondry’s repetitive incarnations of dysfunctional people and relationships. There is nothing cool about people who can’t or won’t grow up. MTW