Wildest dreams 

Striking visuals make up for script’s shortcomings in Gondry’s ‘Science of Sleep’

Serving up everything from toy-horse transport to cotton-ball clouds that ascend to the ceiling, "The Science of Sleep" may be little more than a romp through its creator’s "schizometric" head, as its protagonist would say. But when the director is Michel Gondry, current cinema’s phantasmagorically inclined clutterbug and enchanting offbeatnik, that’s enough to satisfy.

Gondry, whose previous features include "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," makes his screenwriter’s debut with this comparably themed story of cerebral travel and romantic longing. He fares so-so at the keyboard but overcomes his narrative unevenness by delivering extraordinary visual images and sparkling dramatic moments from his surrealistic pillow.

Art-house notable Gael Garcia Bernal ("Bad Education") plays Stephane, an artist from Mexico who’s arrived in Paris to stay with his mother (Miou-Miou). A childlike, creative soul in a drab universe, Stephane lives in a literal dream world where his sleeping life invades his waking one. His real-world frustrations, which include a dull calendar job and his inability to win the heart of his similarly artistic neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose very name spells soul mate, reflect fancifully, sometimes darkly, in his dreams.

Gondry, who’s also known for his music videos, hasn’t crafted a forceful full-length story. The film lacks the dramatic thrust and philosophical depth of the Charlie Kaufman-scripted "Eternal Sunshine." And, in part because Stephane behaves not only immaturely but sometimes piggishly in his treatment of Stephanie, you can’t feel invested in the relationship. Were Bernal not so likeable, we’d feel as put off by Stephane as Stephanie does.

But Gondry supplies so many wonderful bits and bumps and splendid non sequitur juxtapositions that the movie becomes a glorious mix of Toyland, Pepperland, and, foremost, the special blend of whimsy and chaos that seems to prevail in Gondry’s creative lobes.

Refreshingly non-CGI, the animated passages contain fantasmo stuff: gigantic hands, toylike cars, gift-wrap concoctions, a soft-sculpture horse. Stephane’s inventions, including a goofy time machine, are a kick. So is the passage in which Stephanie, in a makeshift studio with a cardboard-box camera, concocts a dream, TV-chef style. We also get a quirky supporting character — a sex-obsessed co-worker (Alain Chabat) — and three languages (French, Spanish, English) in which to process it all.

The result is 106 minutes of marvelous miscellany. With so many movies serving as simply reiterations of exhausted formulas, this imperfect but consistently entertaining and singularly imaginative film stands out, fabulously.

Movie review

The Science of Sleep ???

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat and Miou-Miou

Written and directed by

Michel Gondry

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 46 minutes

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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