With his new film, Michel Gondry takes whimsy to its breaking point, but at least he makes the annoyance part of the point. Artists, or "creative types"—especially the fantasists, fabulists, and dreamers—make life interesting, but they're also all too often insufferable as real-world companions. To celebrate his own abundant creative energy and confess his own emotional and behavioral quirks, Gondry wrote and directed the dreamy The Science of Sleep, and it's all that and a bag of chips.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Gondry surrogate Stéphane, a head-in-the-clouds graphic designer who restlessly produces art that's destined to be misunderstood. After growing up (but not maturing) in Mexico, Stéphane returns to Paris, where he's hosted by his mother (Miou-Miou). He makes an effort to go to work like the rest of the squares, but he can't get his mind around his quirky workplace. "It's your first day here," he's told. "You've got to choose sides." Worse, his colleagues and boss mock his concepts (chief among them a monthly calendar of historic disasters).
Stéphane finds hope of a meaningful outlet for his art when he meets his mother's neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The two circle each other with interest, Stephanie proving a not-unwilling sounding board for Stéphane's prodigious invention, but before long the young man's childish neediness makes him appear to be a desperate, idiot-savant stalker. Trying too hard isn't an attractive quality in either a mate or an artist.
That Stéphane becomes a creepy and volatile romantic bully is a bold choice on Gondry's part, but the complexity of dangerous immaturity mixed with naivete never gets its full due, mostly because we never come to believe that Stephanie's as intrigued with Stéphane as he is with her. Gainsbourg is too normal not to run screaming from Stéphane and his endless gimmickry; had she brought her own dash of madness to the role, the couple's bizarre courtship would have held more water.
As is so often the case with Gondry (a frequent collaborator with intellectual whirling dervish Charlie Kaufman), the filmmaker gets an "A" for effort. The Science of Sleep bursts with ideas, optical illusions, and a unique handmade aesthetic rarely seen outside of short subjects. Collage, montage, animation and detailed production design contribute to a mad world of lucid dreams and dreamy reality; Gondry's eccentric absurdism hangs by a thread to the tether of the romantic narrative. The sum of Gondry's parts may be a hole, but the parts can be pretty darn clever and captivating.