Nightspore describes Michel Gondry‘s The Science of Sleep as “a mixture of Godard and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, as directed by Terry Gilliam,” with which I am inclined to agree. But he adds that this mixture is “to the detriment of all three”; to which I can only respond that I liked the film far more than he did.
I tend not to care much for whimsy; and The Science of Sleep is nothing if not whimsical. But as Blake wrote, “if the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”; and Gondry, similarly, pushes his whimsicality to such extremes that it is transmuted into something else entirely: call it a kind of hyperbolically airy and insubstantial surrealism. (The Science of Sleep is to Un chien andalou, perhaps, as Ecstasy is to LSD). The film has a crazy intensity that derives from the fact that it goes too far, pushing its regression (in the psychoanalytic sense), infantilism, and narcissism to a point of no return. (This is the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse aspect of the movie, though Gondry is, alas, far straighter than Pee-Wee).
The plot, such as it is, involves a would-be artist and inventor, Stephane (played by the lovely Gael Garcia Bernal, speaking a mixture of accented French and accented English, and only occasionally his native Mexican Spanish), who develops a crush on his next-door neighbor Stephanie (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is every bit as wonderful and wise and irresistible, in a totally down-to-earth and non-sex-kittenish way, as the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin ought to be). They don’t ever connect, largely because Stephane lives too exclusively in his own head: that is to say, in his dreams, which (literally) occupy most of the length of the film.
This means that Stephanie’s otherness forever remains opaque to Stephane. Not that this matters, exactly, since Stephane’s erotic frustration — if we can even call it erotic, which I am not sure we can — is less an impediment than it is the necessary condition and the fuel for his fantasy life. For this fantasy life (the only life he has, actually) revels in its own repetitious failure to make it past the preliminaries of an encounter that is never consummated. In other words, Stephane is a figure, not of desire, but of what Lacan and Zizek call pure drive: “we become ‘humans,'” Zizek says, “when we get caught into a closed, self-propelling loop of repeating the same gesture and finding satisfaction in it” — finding satisfaction precisely in the failure ever to attain the supposed object of satisfaction, in the act of circling around it again and again without ever attaining it. Stephane, in a sense, is entirely beyond desire — and thereby almost sublime — precisely in his disconnection from others, and his failure to distinguish reality from fantasy. (I believe that I owe to Nightspore, too, the insight that seeming to be beyond desire, untouched by desire, is precisely what makes a person, or a figure, seem sublime to us — though Nightspore said this in an entirely different context: referring, I think, to Paul de Man and Andy Warhol rather than to Gondry’s film). And this sublimity, this sense of being beyond desire, is why neither Garcia Bernal’s endearing charm, nor Gondry’s whimsicality, ever becomes cloying, for all that they are both laid on so thick.
However: that last metaphor I just used — “laying it on thick” — is precisely why I am not satisfied with the psychoanalytic reading of The Science of Sleep that I sketched out in the previous paragraph. For such a reading misses what’s most important about the film: its materiality, which might also be called its affective density. This has to do with the portrayal of Stephane’s dream life. The film is every bit as visually inventive and provocative as one might have expected from Gondry’s music videos (not to mention Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). There are all sorts of bizarre little models and mockups and rear-presented backdrops, visual non sequiturs, knit objects that take on an animated life, pastel color schemes gone amok, and so on. Not to mention the little gadgets or machines that Stephane is always inventing (whether in dreams or in “real life” is never clear). Most notably, there is the “one-second time machine,” which jumps you one second into the past or the future: meaning that, in the film we are watching, we see either a stuttering repetition of frames, or a jump cut. (We can call these effects and gadgets Deleuzo-Guattarian ‘desiring machines,’ as long as we remember that “desire” in this sense has nothing to do with “desire” in the psychoanalytic/Lacanian sense: they are transversal cuts in the film, heterogeneous assemblages, producing transformations or “becomings” that are both childlike and childish).
I call all these effects and devices the “materiality” of the film because they are what’s visceral about it, what grabs you with corporeal force, what you are forced to feel, and forced to remember — and it’s an amazing accomplishment to make a film whose visceral force comes precisely from its most impalpable and evanescent elements. Also, these elements — effects or machines — have an odd sort of displacement to them, which comes from the fact that they are both, at the same time, objects within the diegesis, and aspects of the film’s technique or formal strategy. That is to say, they are both content and form, and they blur the distinction between content and form.
These devices are also all quite ramshackle, and ostentatiously retro. Stephane’s dreams take place (if that is the right phrase) in a fantasy TV studio, complete with tacky talk-show furniture, and an old-style television camera made out of cardboard. Gondry is known for his penchant to replicate what seem to be digital effects through in-camera, or otherwise analog, means. I suspect this is indeed the case for most of the effects in The Science of Sleep — at least it looked like Gondry was using rear projection and stop-time animation, rather than digital compositing. And correspondingly, within the diegesis, Stephane writes on a manual typewriter, rather than a computer; and his gadgets are made from mechanical parts rather than integrated circuits. Everything in The Science of Sleep cuts against the sleek, cyborgian look that is now the cliche of contemporary culture at its most supposedly forward-looking and innovative; but also against the distancing nostalgia that has been the unchanging look of dystopian speculation for almost a quarter century now (ever since Blade Runner). Gondry creates a new look, which isn’t the future, any more than it is the past — it’s rather a kind of displacement-in-place — can I say a displacement-in-time-in place? — a rupturing of the present, something that tears apart the present moment, multiplies it within itself, yet without pushing it either towards an impending future-as-potentiality or a hauntological past. (In this way, The Science of Sleep is sort of the flip side, or the riposte and counter-statement to, the deeply hauntological Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).
The Science of Sleep is like gossamer; it dissolves in your hands when you try to grab hold of it. This is why so many viewers and reviewers have dismissed it as insubstantial; but for me, that is precisely its triumph. For Gondry, dreams are not depth psychology. They are rather, precisely, the superficiality that displaces, replaces, and dissolves (if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor) the anguished depth that our conscious selves wallow in, that belongs only to self-conscious reflection. Thus alone (to paraphrase and pervert Nietzsche) is the innocence of becoming restored…