Dir: Michel Gondry. Fr. 2006. 105mins.
For his third feature The Science Of Sleep, French directorMichel Gondry leaves behind Charlie Kaufman, whowrote his first two films, and finds a droll, eccentric voice all his own. Amadcap surreal comedy set in Paris and shot in English and French, it doesn'thave the emotional impact of his last film EternalSunshine Of The Spotless Mind but its deliriousinventiveness and determined good nature give it a unique appeal.
Snapped up for more than $6mby Warner Independent Pictures for North America and the UK after its Sundanceworld premiere on Sunday night, the film will become a fast cult favouriteamong smart young adults wherever it is released and should certainly rival thebox office performance of other offbeat pieces like the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovichand Eternal Sunshine, as well aspicking up end-of-year awards attention.
Its decidedly non-US flavourwill lead to strong box office numbers in continental Europe, especially Francewhere it was made and financed by Gaumont.
Gondry's considerable achievement here is to generate theright pitch of absurdist comedy and blend it comfortably with fantasy andpathos. French humour often fails to work outside its home borders, especiallywhen delivered, as here, in fractured English accents, but the director'sscript, while containing many broad and asinine elements characteristic oflocal comedy, is generally non-culturally specific despite the Parisian settingand the supporting cast of French stars like Gainsbourg,Chabat and Miou-Miou.
Absolutely key to thesuccess of the tone is Gael Garcia Bernal, whose unexpected comic talent in thelead role and amiable screen presence help compensate for some of the silliermoments and longueurs in the film. It's a revelatoryperformance from the Mexican actor which confirms him as a versatile movie starwho can confidently carry the most challenging of material - in English andFrench, no less.
The film begins with aprologue that sets the tone for much of the playfulness to follow. Stephane (Bernal) is the host of StephaneTV, a TV studio with cardboard cameras and egg-tray walls that exists in hisdreams and in which each dream is introduced.
In reality, Stephane is returning to Paris after many years living withhis late father, a Mexican, in Mexico. His French mother (MiouMiou) has coaxed him back with the promise of a jobas a designer at a calendar-making firm. Arriving at his mother's apartment,the wildly creative Stephane, whose dreamlife often intrudes into his waking life, settles intohis tiny childhood bed.
The following morning, Stephane gets his hand trapped under a piano being carriedup the staircase to a neighbouring apartment. The new tenant Stephanie (Gainsbourg) and her friend Zoe(de Caunes), thinking he is a furniture mover, teasethe wide-eyed Stephane while nursing his hand and,too shy to correct them, he pretends that he doesn't live next door. He takesan instant shine to Zoe, while also aware thatStephanie has taken an instant shine to him.
At the calendar office, heis disappointed to find that his job is as a mundane copy setter with threeeccentric co-workers (the terrific Chabat, Petit, Bourdo) and uncommunicative boss(Pierre Vaneck).
Gradually his relationshipwith Stephanie grows, although he is still convinced that he prefers Zoe. The two share an activeimagination and plan an animated film project together based around a boat shehas made out of fabric.
However, as he startsfalling in love with Stephanie, Stephane'sinsecurities and anxiety surrounding the relationship begin to blur the linebetween the dreamworld and real life. Even though heshould be happy - his calendar illustrating great disasters of our time ispublished, and he has fallen in love - he begins to think that Stephanie islying to him and possibly cheating on him.
The film's weakest act isthe final half hour when we don't know what is real and what is not in Stephane's perceptions. The audience connection with thecharacter and his dilemma is somewhat weakened here and the resolution isunsatisfactory, if still sweet.
Nevertheless, Gondry's visual flair is charming throughout, withunpolished special effects, animation and trick photography employed alongsideamusing props like a pair of giant hands, a one-second time machine and acardboard car.
Warner Independent Pictures
Gael Garcia Bernal