Friday, September 22, 2006

The Science of Sleep

A dream truly is a remarkable phenomenon. For all of our scientific advances, we still can’t explain away the mystery and power of our own dreams. Imagination can take us wherever we want, but dreams come upon us differently; when we’re unconscious and at our most vulnerable, our mind makes a journey without our permission. At times our dreams seem random, calling on people and events which have no discernible correlation or relevance. They can be frightening, funny, erotic, or perhaps a bizarre combination of all three. All dreams are different, but the common thread running throughout our dreams is an element of fantasy. Dreams occupy worlds that are entirely their own.

In The Science of Sleep, Stéphane (Gael Garciá Bernal) seems unable to distinguish between the various realms of his own mind. He returns to France after his father’s death and quickly forms a friendship with his next-door neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Besides the obvious connection between their names, they both share an interest in imaginative fantasy and the mystery of dreams. Stéphane’s fantasies are contrasted by his incredibly boring job with a company that makes calendars. He has trouble deciding how to handle a potential romance with Stéphanie, but he has even more trouble deciding how to handle himself, and he never seems as comfortable with the outside world as with the world of his own dreams.

The film does indeed feel very dreamlike. For starters, the screenplay drifts in and out of multiple languages, a choice that few films make. Many scenes take place in Stéphane’s mind, which is visualized as a television studio made entirely of cardboard. Stéphane hosts his own imaginary show in which he shares whatever is on his mind. I enjoyed these moments in the studio; the cardboard surroundings immediately conjure childhood fantasies in which ordinary cardboard boxes became spacecrafts or giant fortresses. These scenes are fun, but the film really shines in its dream sequences. Most of the dream elements are achieved with stop-motion animation, an old visual effects technique that has also found a home in animated films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Chicken Run.

Writer/Director Michel Gondry is onto something with his use of stop-motion to convey dreams; there has always been something dreamlike and otherworldly about this particular artistic method. It’s refreshing to see this technique amid today’s onslaught of computer-generated animation, which has opened every visual door. No story, however imaginative, escapes the cinema’s reach, yet the effects in today’s films don’t have quite the same intrigue as the old stop-motion visuals. In King Kong (1933), for instance, the gorilla’s movements appear odd and jerky, and at times you can even see fingerprints from the animator’s hands appear in his fur. It’s a very dated visual effect, yet it still holds a unique air of mystery, and continues to captivate audiences more than 70 years after the film’s release. The dream sequences in The Science of Sleep remind me of these early effects achievements; the scenes are jerky, outdated, and absolutely wonderful. There’s a real beauty and power behind them, and I can’t think of any other film that incorporates animation in the same way this one does.

Unfortunately, few of the film’s characters are as interesting as its visuals. Stéphane works as the story’s centerpiece, though the romance between he and Stépahnie is ultimately lacking. Gondry’s screenplay has some clever exchanges and is surprisingly funny at times, though, as its title suggests, the film’s strength comes in its dreamlike visions. There are some explorations of scientific information about dreams, but the film is mostly a celebration of all the things we can’t explain. Early in the film, we’re able to distinguish between the sequences occurring in the “real” world and those occurring in Stéphane’s subconscious, but around the film’s halfway mark all lines begin to blur, until ultimately we have to decide for ourselves which elements represent reality and which occur only in dreams. When the dust settles, I think you’ll find that it doesn’t matter. Whether Stéphane’s memories were dreamt or played out while he was awake, he allows them to actively reflect and shape who he is. Leaving the theater, I was reminded of a line from Dead Poets Society: “Only in our dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”