In an era dominated by computer-generated special effects and other expensive production trickery, Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is charmingly modest and tactile: The romper-room effects here are hand-crafted with cardboard and cellophane and yarn and plaster, like a grade-school crafts project turned installation-art opus. The resulting mise-en-scène is like Pee-Wee's Playhouse via Salvador Dali. The cinematographic trickery is equally low-tech.
Prior to this highly personal film, Gondry had emerged a major filmmaker via two Charlie Kaufman collaborations (Human Nature and, far better, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and one Dave Chappelle collaboration (Block Party, still one of 2006's best films). But before his rise as a feature filmmaker, Gondry made his name via creative music videos for arty acts such as Björk and the Chemical Brothers. The Science of Sleep, in which Gael García Bernal plays a young man who works out his waking-life problems through a rich dream world, is reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its romanticism (a little more adolescent this time -- sweet, wild, with undercurrents of melancholy) but is really a nod to this music-video heritage in that visceral and emotional impact takes precedence over storytelling.
Bernal is Stéphane, a young French-Mexican man who has been living in Mexico with his father. As the film opens, he's returned to Paris to see his estranged mother, taking a job she's arranged for him at a printing company that specializes in producing calendars.
Stéphane thinks he's taking a graphic-artist position and hopes to sell the company on his morbid calendar idea, in which each month is accompanied by a drawing depicting a celebrated disaster. Instead, Stéphane ends up performing rote tasks in a colorful but stifling workspace that could double for a French version of The Office. Meanwhile, Stéphane's personal life is also troubled. He doesn't get along with his mother's new husband, and he lives alone in an apartment that was his childhood home, growing obsessed with an equally artsy next-door neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg).
Though Stéphane struggles with real life, he sorts things out in dreams that make up half the film. These dreams branch out from the cardboard-and-crayon set of Stéphane TV, a would-be late-night talk show in which Stéphane -- dressed in a mod suit -- is host, guest, and band all at once. This dreamscape gambit is a conduit for many witty visual eruptions. Stéphane battles his office superior with hands that have grown to comically huge proportions. There's an electric razor that grows hair rather than removing it, giving its user a huge mountain-man beard. One dream sequence has Stéphane in a plushy costume, playing drums and singing a Velvet Underground song.
If The Science of Sleep seems old-fashioned in its effects, it's notable just how old-fashioned. Gondry's movie doesn't merely evoke pre-CGI cinema. It's a seemingly intentional nod to the dawn of filmmaking, to the now seemingly quaint wonderment of such turn-of-the-century films as Georges Méliès' Voyage to the Moon or Edwin Porter's Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.