03 October 2006

current cinema: La Science des rêves


starring: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, and Emma de Caunes
written and directed by: Michel Gondry
R, 105 min, 2006, France

Shy and introverted by day, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) uses his dreams and imagination as his chief form of expression. The dreams--elaborate fantasies that exist in a world dominated by arts and crafts--allow him to escape reality in favor of a world where he hosts a nightly TV show, is seduced by co-workers, writes an acclaimed book, becomes something akin to Antoine Doinel[1], and is generally beloved. Only, Stéphane often confuses his dreams with reality, so when he woos Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a similar soul who lives next door, he has trouble reconciling the girl in his dreams who loves him and the actual girl who might, if given the chance.

This is not a healthy habit for Stéphane to indulge, but in Michel Gondry's La Science des rêves it is neither a shortcoming nor a virtue, but rather a fundamental part of who he is, a necessary by-product of a misunderstood creative genius. Or perhaps he is a genius who has not yet begun to reach his potential. I'm not sure which.

Not that it really matters. We know Stéphane is far from normal, and that is enough. He fashions himself an artist, but he finds his disaster calendar series to be a difficult sell after his mother gets him a job cutting and pasting letterheads. Without creative stimulation, his mind wanders and his work becomes secondary to his imagination, just as life is often secondary to his dreams. When that happens, Stéphane is effectively paralyzed.

Fittingly, this is similar to the character flaw he projects on Stéphanie—that she can’t finish anything, despite a lack of evidence. To Stéphane, the fact that he believes it is enough to make it true, reason be damned.

Reason is a low priority here, but, even with that in mind, there are times where La Science des rêves feels like a series of filmed ideas, half-realized dream sequences that do little to advance either the plot or the characters. One wonders if Gondry occasionally falls in love with images at the expense of the film's greater whole. It's in these moments where his direction, which in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was so deft, wanders, stumbling around for a bit while he searches for a narrative thread. This is due, in part, to the nature of the story Gondry chooses to tell. Managing the chaos La Science des rêves embraces is a Herculean task, to be sure, and Gondry very nearly pulls it off. It would hardly warrant discussion if he hadn't done it before, but he has, and comparisons to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are inevitable. Done correctly, they are also helpful. La Science des rêves struggles where its predecessor soars--on the page. What's missing is the unique genius of Charlie Kaufman, the ability to be at once quirky and melancholy. Gondry is by no means a bad writer--in fact just the opposite--but he's no Charlie Kaufman, and it may just be that he's a better visual artist than he is a storyteller. Ergo, the film's chief flaw: a threadbare narrative that's unable to plumb the depths required to match the level of everything else.

Much of the film hinges on how well the audience responds to the visual artistry. So if you, say, loathe Gondry's music videos[2], you'll likely have trouble connecting beyond a surface level to La Science des rêves. Such is life.

That’s not to say you won’t love the ride, for it would be difficult not to enjoy La Science des rêves which, in addition to the wonderful flights of fancy, is wickedly funny from beginning to end. All told, La Science des rêves is a thoroughly entertaining trip through Gondry’s imagination, even if it doesn’t prove to have any real weight behind it, vanishing almost as quickly as it appears. Still, it’s one hell of an experience, sort of like a lucid dream.

[1] Doinel is the main character in François Truffaut’s series that began with Les Quatre cents coups (1959) and culminated in L’Amour en fuite (1979).

[2] He's done videos for Björk, Beck, and the White Stripes, among others.