Friday, October 06, 2006

The Science of Sleep and other dreams...

About three-quarters of the way into any film with a romantic subplot the hero and the object of his affection have a falling out. Maybe a lie the hero told has come out into the open. Maybe some secret has been revealed. Maybe there has been a misunderstanding of some sort. Ultimately, conflict is introduced to the relationship. However, the hero decides that he will not give up. He goes to great lengths to prove how much he cares for his lover. Maybe he barges in on her Divorced Women’s Support Group and says, “I am not letting you get rid of me.” Or maybe he storms into her workplace in full military regalia and literally carries her off to a life of domesticity. Whatever the actual circumstances, the two are reunited and presumably live happily ever after.

This is where it gets dangerous. Those two or three dusty synapses in your brain start firing and before you know it you’re standing beneath the window of your high-school crush holding up a giant boom-box blaring Peter Gabriel and when the cops show up you try delivering your big passionate speech to them but they don’t care that you and the girl in the window rode the same bus in the eighth grade and before you know it you’re violating the restraining order by breaking into her apartment because no one, not even the woman you love, understands just how much the two of you are meant for each other and if you can just prove to her how much you love her and how you would do anything for her, anything at all, even how you would kill for her if she asked, if she only understood how much you want, if she only understood how much you desperately need her to ask you to kill for her then everything would be okay.

But it never is okay because people who do things like that are crazy and in the real world crazy people don’t get married they get committed. That distressing fact of life is the primary conflict of Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep. Gondry has crafted a film whose protagonist Stephane, played superbly with bipolar abandon by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a Peter Panesque manchild suffering from abandonment issues who wants desperately to be in love but who has suffered ‘since childhood’ with the inability to differentiate between dream and reality. When he finally settles on his new next-door neighbor Stephanie as the object of his infatuation he begins the impossible task of making his dreams into reality.

The similar names of the two lovers are no coincidence. Like the Petrarchan lover of long ago, Stephane is infatuated less with Stephanie than with himself and the idea of being in love. His is an egocentric affection for his own role as a lover and Gondry doesn’t shy away from presenting Stephane as selfish in his desires. However, in framing the film through Stephane’s perceptions, Gondry succeeds in complicating this selfish, petty, delusional character with intense beauty. The movies Stephane creates in his mind are the dreams of a child; manic nightmare and fantasy scenes stripped of all pretension and reduced completely to the level of the basic human desires for security and love. Similarly, whether as cause or as result of his inability to distinguish between dream and reality, Stephane is stripped of pretension and animated exclusively by his desires for security and love. Essentially Stephane is a child with all the innocence and selfishness of any child.

In most films the symptoms of this kind of character’s disconnection with reality are simply the minor peccadilloes that make up a quirky character. These heroes, though they could never flourish in the world outside the theatre, are granted happy endings in film and we leave the theaters feeling justified in our own personal egocentricities. However, Gondry places Stephane in the real world where being too quirky is a developmental disorder and refusing to grow up carries very severe negative social consequences. The Science of Sleep includes these negative consequences but still asserts that there is a kind of beautiful madness in refusing to grow up.


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