Ah, fall. Or, as it's known to Hollywood's scheming denizens, "Oscar Ramp-Up Season." Now's when studios start releasing their Oscar bait, their films that've been conceived and marketed specifically for Roger Ebert's thumb and Gene Shalit's puns. The prestige pictures. No Michael Bays or McGs allowed. We're talking art—or at least the closest one can get to it while still using mega-wattage stars and billion-dollar budgets. And, every year, critics fall for the half-assed charade: Shortly after a few scenes are shot in soft focus, or a sumptuous period costume is stitched together, we're all stuck reading exorbitant, hyperbolic praise about films that don't really deserve it.
So when legit acclaim shows up at this time of year, it almost seems disingenuous—forced, trite, like it was written by someone aiming to get their quote thrown up on a movie poster. This is important: I'm not trying to get on any poster. So please believe me on this, and go see The Science of Sleep.
Michel Gondry's directed a slew of killer music videos, one mediocre movie (2001's Human Nature), and two of the best films in recent memory: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. The Science of Sleep is his latest, and it deserves to be in such lofty company. Even better: Unlike most of fall's big films, Science isn't one of Hollywood's prefabricated darlings. It's an excellent film, but on its own terms—it's clever, fresh, funny, rambling, and heartfelt.
Gael García Bernal plays Stéphane, a twenty-something artist who draws calendars that celebrate famous disasters and invents glasses that make everything 3-D. ("Isn't life already in 3-D?" asks another character. "Well... yeah," the endearing, enthusiastic Stéphane stammers, trying to get her to play along. "But... c'mon.") Set up with a boring job, Stéphane finds himself retreating to his surreal dreams—dreams in which he hosts his own absurdist TV show, or swims above cities that rise and fall via stop-motion animation.
Making increasingly regular appearances in said dreams is Stéphane's neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Sweet and charming, Stéphanie likes Stéphane, but she's put off by his bizarre quirks and clunky conversation. Their friendship/relationship's awkward and adorable—and it only gets more so, as the childlike Stéphane becomes entangled in both his dreams and his feelings for Stéphanie.
With Science, writer/director Gondry seems to have found a perfect vehicle for his talents. The things he's most adept at—sharp characterization of complex characters, visuals that jump from familiar realism to peculiar fantasy—make up the largest chunk of Science's sometimes formless narrative. And throughout, poignant performances from Bernal and Gainsbourg match Gondry's visuals—an impressive feat, to say the least.
The various threads and digressions that tumble out of Science's loose concept deserve to be experienced on their own, without me muddying them up—so here ends both the synopsizing and giddily dispensed praise. (Still, and seriously—it's all true and justified.) But back to the point: You're going to read a lot of breathlessly adulatory reviews in the next few months. If you believe any of them, believe this one.