"The Science of Sleep" is a perplexing title. This work of auteurship by noted music video and feature film director Michel Gondry is all about fantasy and dreams. We are left to assume that the title is ironic, that the science of sleep is a sleepy science, a dreamy one you make up as you go along a few real figures over here, a few magic toys, flying carpets and crazy physics over there. The movie itself is kind of a magic ride, too. Whether it all means anything is another question.
Our hapless dreamer is Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young man making a new start at his mother's Parisian apartment. She's away when he moves in, but she has set him up with a job at a local printer of novelty calendars. Stéphane, who thinks himself an artist, goes to his first day carrying a thick portfolio and ideas for a new calendar, but he is angered to realize that his mundane office job is to place the type over pictures of puppies, boats and landscapes. His big idea a calendar where every month is illustrated with a famous disaster is laughed out of the boss's office.
These first few scenes by themselves establish a colorful sense of imaginative life, similar to the askew world Gondry directed in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." But when Stéphane retreats to his dreams, they make that earlier movie look like stark realism. Stéphane sleeps so deeply and dreams so violently, it is sometimes impossible to tell where we are, no matter where we are. Is he sleeping, and dreaming he's at work? Or maybe he is asleep at work and dreaming of sleep. Or maybe he sleepwalked to work, then fell into a deeper sleep and is now dreaming of home. It isn't long before we are as totally lost and caught up in the disturbance of so much heavy dreaming as Stéphane is, which is probably the intention. We might be shown after a given episode what was really going on, but Gondry undermines even these brief assurances so we still can't totally trust what we've seen.
The dreaming can be as extreme and fancy as it is hard to follow, but Gondry is smart to keep it grounded in real motivations. Sometimes it's wish fulfillment Stéphane gets his revenge by dreaming that he kills the boss (Pierre Vaneck), nails the secretary (Emma de Caunes) and wins awards with his avant-garde calendars. Sometimes an anxiety is unveiled. But always at the root of Stéphane's overactive mind lies the mundane stuff of conventional yearnings, which is actually a nice cushion for the zany roller coaster this movie can become.
Whether anxious or in reverie, diffident Stéphane is usually thinking about his cute, friendly neighbor (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A relationship buds, but Stéphane's problem is that his dreams are so overpowering they often make him do bizarre things in his sleep. And he can hardly tell his dream world from reality any better than we can. Chicks might think this kind of stuff is cute at first, Stéphane realizes, but they won't after they find you breaking into their window half-crazed in the middle of the night.
Gondry has things well under control for about two-thirds of the movie. But there's a gaping absence at its center. As Stéphane tries and fails at life, we are left to wonder why we've been invited along to witness his freaky mind. It's not likely that Gondry is presenting his dreams and crazy inventions just for their own sake, but it's also hard to make any other case for their proliferation without input from the proliferator himself. Would it all seem more at home in an inconsequential music video? Probably. Movies are in need of more reason, even if the reason is fantastical. The great frustration of all dreams is that they go nowhere. But popular movies, even if they are about those dreams, have to. (R) 105 min. *** S