Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Science of Sleep

Dir. Michel Gondry

In the 1930s during Stalin's rise to power many great filmmakers in the Soviet Union were accused of formalism and subsequently banned from producing their art. Formalism, as described by film historian David A. Cook is “the sometimes deadly sin of exalting the aesthetic form of a work above its ideological content.” In other words: style over substance. Early landmark Soviet directors such as Dziga Vertov, Lev Kuleshov, and national hero Sergei Eisenstein, were all silenced under Stalin's artistic tyranny. Today, things are quite different. Style is exalted. David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino, whose respective style occasionally become a means unto itself, are among America's most popular directors. The 21st century has thus far bore witness to impressive advancements in reproducing life via film technology. Between Peter Jackson, Tarantino, Pixar, and a host of films such as Children of Men, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Mulholland Dr., silver screen possibilities have never seemed more infinite. Among the technically ambitious there is French director Michel Gondry whose pioneering visual work, like Fincher and Spike Jonze, stems from his time spent producing music videos. If you've never seen one of his music videos I suggest starting here. Gondry spent the early part of his film career working closely with the brilliant screen writer Charlie Kaufman, a union that produced Human Nature (2001) and the romantic epic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In 2006 Gondry wrote and directed The Science of Sleep, which is a film that ultimately proves the difference between a visually stimulating film counterbalanced by an intoxicating and bitter sweet script and a visually stimulating film that exists by and for itself.

Following in the vein of Eternal Sunshine, The Science of Sleep is the story of a rather twisted romance. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) returns to his former home in France after his father dies. Here he meets and falls in love with his neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Their relationship begins with a series of bumbling, half-witted lies that later create an opportunity for comedic relief. Said relief is necessary as Stephane is a horribly awkward, insular and hyper creative person whose imagination has a tendency to take control. As the film begins to swirl downwards like water draining from a sink, we find out that Stephane is largely unable to separate reality and his dreamworld. His wild imagination roams free while sleeping, but occasionally (and more often as the film progresses) it entirely detaches and the result, psychologically, is vaguely interesting rather than insightful. Gondry clearly knows how to handle and enhance the visual aspect of Stephane's unconscious paradise, but his grasp on its psychological aspect is at best basic, and at worst horribly understated. Stephane is portrayed as a child and his desires conform to his adolescent concept of romance. The problem is that Gondry fills the cinematic dead space between ocular episodes that border on hallucination with emotional responses to them that could only be the biproduct of a more experienced person, one with acute knowledge of death and the twisted, confusing realities of the world. This contradiction ruins the emotional continuity of the film to the point at which it literally falls apart. The film's final sequence, a very obvious reference to Freudian wish-fulfillment, is a narrative cop-out if there ever was one.

Though hugely flawed in its ignorance of psychological relations, The Science of Sleep is still a visual masterpiece. Gondry's art direction is simply unparalleled and is taken to its very limit. The sheer amount of vision required to visualize and produce everything from the vivid, surreal dream sequences of Stephane to the plausible and pleasant aesthetics of Stephanie's Parisian apartment is awe inspiring. This is not to suggest that Gondry was alone in this endeavor, but The Silence of Sleep is very clearly his brainchild. He proves, without any trace of doubt, that he is a genius visionary and a prolific innovator. Still, The Science of Sleep fails in spite of, or perhaps because of, this vision and artistic perseverance. The film plays like an extended music video, subjecting the viewer to a lavish display of artistic refinement and technological know-how, but ultimately fails to form a cohesive statement. It is likely his work with Kaufman encouraged a reevaluation of traditional film structure. However, Gondry takes the idea one step too far and abandons it altogether. Gondry, like Stephane, operates best in the absence of reality, with nothing tethering him to his fears and insecurities. I shall conclude simply by saying that, despite its impressive stimuli, Stalin probably would have exiled Michel Gondry to Siberia for The Silence of Sleep.

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