Michel Gondry makes more interesting films when he’s chasing through screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s playful thoughts than his own.
Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep” is pure whimsy presented with a childlike lack of guile yet piled on so thickly the movie becomes less a story and more an exercise in caprice for its own sake.
Writer-director Gondry’s tale of a man-child (Gael Garcia Bernal) seesawing between his harmlessly demented fantasy world and a stifling outer life is filled with clever, dreamy visuals.
But the emotionally stunted hero feels as artificial as the makeshift props Gondry weaves into the man’s weird alternate reality. The trappings and characters have no purpose except as playthings in Gondry’s cinematic sandbox, which he uses to create a semi-autobiographical world that clearly has deep meaning for himself but is little more than a jumble of loosely connected images to anyone else.
Fun images, yes. Meaningful, no.
In superficial fashion, “The Science of Sleep” retraces many of the same reality-vs.-fantasy themes examined far more richly in Gondry’s “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” for which the Oscar-winning screenplay was written by Kaufman from a story he developed with Gondry and Pierre Bismuth.
Bernal stars as Stephane, a man whose vivid dreams of a cloistered personal world gradually are taking precedence over the drab, disappointing future shaping up in his real life.
While sleeping, he’s master of “Stephane TV,” a television studio built from cardboard boxes, shower curtains and other found objects, the set resembling something a lonely, imaginative child might cobble together to make himself the star of his own universe.
In his dreams, Stephane is host of a cooking show in which he mixes together strange thoughts and observations with memories old and new to formulate his unconscious ramblings.
In actual life, Stephane has just come home to Paris, where his mother has landed him what’s supposed to be a job designing calendars, an artistic endeavor that could be a waking means of applying his pent-up creativity.
The job turns out to be little more than a typesetting gig, though, and Stephane begins retreating further into his dreamscapes. (Gondry himself once held a similar job, and the movie was shot in a building where he lived in Paris while employed there.)
Stephane finds a potential anchor to draw him back to the conscious world when he meets his new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her friend Zoe (Emma de Caunes).
A sweetly chaste kinship develops between Stephane and Stephanie, their similar names part of Gondry’s warm and fuzzy stab at examining themes of duality and synchronicity.
Bernal and Gainsbourg have the easy, natural rapport of a little boy and girl who meet on a playground and instantly decide to take up a game of make-believe.
Much of the story putters about pointlessly as Stephane briefly maintains a tiresome little deception with Stephanie and Zoe and has amusing but ineffectual encounters with his eccentric co-workers (Alain Chabat, Aurelia Petit and Sacha Bourdo).
They all get churned into Stephane’s dreams, which grow increasingly indistinguishable from his everyday life.
Gondry crafts some deceptively simple and wonderfully inventive sets, effects and animated sequences. There are delightful moments, including Stephane’s demonstration of a time machine that, with a hiccuping flourish, transports people a single second into the past or future.
But the individual moments feel disconnected, the movie playing out like a compilation of Gondry’s innovative music videos. “The Science of Sleep” entertains in a fleeting way, and no doubt, it’s all deeply personal for Gondry. For the rest of us, it’s like sleepwalking through someone else’s tepid dream.