MAYBE I should confess that if Michel Gondry's next directing project involved rerouting traffic, I'd buy a ticket with my own money. "The Science of Sleep," Gondry's third feature, follows the under-loved "Human Nature" and the much more successful, melancholy and poignant "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It's the first of his films not written by Charlie Kaufman (though it was Gondry who proposed the idea for "Eternal Sunshine," after it was suggested to him by a friend). After seeing the third film it's easier to sort their individual talents into adjoining but separate piles. Gondry, whose artistic, free-thinking family includes two musicians, another director and an inventor, is nostalgically fixated on memory, especially childhood memory, and the role it plays in shaping the present. But he doesn't share Kaufman's more cerebral gift for precise narrative structure. "The Science of Sleep" isn't as intricately plotted as "Eternal Sunshine," nor does it rush to quite as satisfying an end. It doesn't have anyplace in particular to go, and it takes its time not getting there. But the sightseeing is fantastic.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Long before he started making movies, Gondry was known for his wildly inventive and weirdly emotionally transforming music videos for Bjork, the Foo Fighters, the Rolling Stones and others. Among the handful of directors (Spike Jonze, Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton and Mark Romanek among them) who spun record companies' promotional money into surprisingly evocative daydreams for which pop songs provided the score, Gondry was arguably the most technically innovative and emotionally attuned. But his biggest trick was his ability to capture private, dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness exultations triggered by music and mechanically transpose them onto film.
In this light, the title of his latest film seems particularly apt. The movie is a love story. Sort of. If "Eternal Sunshine" bloomed in the cracks between the end of a love affair and its eventual resumption, "The Science of Sleep" is a passionate idyll that never happens. (Or if it does, it waits until after we've left the theater.) It's a jumble of dreams and minor moments, joke-less comedy and infantile aggression expressed in three languages and something resembling telepathy. In his dreams, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) is the host of a cooking show shot in a cardboard TV studio padded with egg cartons and decorated with a plastic shower curtain. Here at the studios of Stephane TV, he takes reminiscences, crushes, frustrations and whatever else he's got lying around his subconscious and tosses it all into a giant stockpot and waits for the results to appear on a screen. (Science plus sleep equals movies.)
A young Mexican artist and aspiring inventor, Stephane has just returned to his childhood home in Paris after his father's death from cancer. His French mother (Miou-Miou), now married to a magician and living in the outskirts, has lured him back with the promise of a creative job at a calendar company. Stephane's idea is to commemorate each month with a memorable disaster -- the explosion of TWA Flight 800 is featured, as is the Mexico City earthquake. On his way to work the first day, he encounters movers on the staircase and ends up with his hand pinned under a piano. The girls to whom it apparently belongs invite him in, spritz some foot odor spray on his bruise and wrap his hand in a bandage. Stephane is instantly smitten with the spiky Zoe (Emma de Caunes), who turns out to be a friend of his neighbor, the shy, quiet Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an artist who works in an art supply store. Not wanting to cop to being the landlady's son, Stephane pretends to have come up with movers and keeps up the ruse of not living there long after the girls have figured it out.
Unfortunately, the job consists of "pasting words in a basement all day," as he bleats to his mother later. And his co-workers are a trio of squabbling clock-punchers, bored and fortified with cynicism. Guy (Alain Chabat), in particular, is the perfect foil for his tiny, idealistic new friend, who seems to live in the permanent shadow of Godzilla's looming foot. Guy fends off existential despair by obsessing about sex, making fun of everything and stuffing his tiny colleague Serge (Sacha Bourdo) into the trashcan as often as possible. The third co-worker is Martine (Aurelie Petit), on whom Guy, Serge and the boss have desultory crushes.
Soon all these changes and new sensations are feeding feverish dreams. Stephane's despair about his job, his frustrations with French, his confusing crush on Stephanie (he thought he liked Zoe), and his childhood fears are morphing into surrealistic epics that involve flying, sex on the copier, discovering that he's been betrayed, the usual. There's another recurring motif in Stephane's dreams -- he wakes up to find his hands have grown to the size of paddle tennis rackets. Trying to summarize the movie feels something like that -- in other words, I give up. Suffice it to say that I laughed throughout, and then was sad.
It's rare for young actors to exude as much charisma and charm as Gainsbourg and Garcia Bernal; they flicker like tiny, pulsating stars in a glaring galaxy of manufactured celebrity. And though Gondry metes their moments out in small doses and makes it harder to discern what does and doesn't transpire between them as the movie goes on, and their interactions (both real and imagined) are poignant, funny, romantic and sweet. At times, I wished the view of their relationship wasn't quite so refracted and oblique, but then, so does Stephanie, probably. Gondry obviously knows from love trouble, and for any of his exes still wondering what was going on in his head, here's their chance to find out. Nothing much happens, but a lot goes on. It perfectly captures the feeling of what it's like to be young, creative, lost, idealistic and maladjusted, and it recognizes the overlap between the urge to create things and the longing for love.
'The Science of Sleep'
MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content and nudity
A Warner Independent Pictures release. Writer-director Michel Gondry. Producer Georges Bermann. Director of photography Jean-Louis Bompoint. Editor Juliette Welfling. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
In selected theaters.