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Swimming through his own dreamscape: Bernal in The Science of Sleep.

Leaky Surrealism

By Ann Morrow

The Science of Sleep

Directed by Michel Gondry

For Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the collaboration between self-obsessed yet astute screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and French video artiste and romantic obsessive Michel Gondry resulted in one of the most luminously original and daringly emotive love stories of recent years. In it, two mismatched former lovers (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) have their memories of each other erased, and subsequently become attracted to each other all over again. The film’s piñata-like heart is burst open by the unlikely chemistry between Carrey, as an average guy who is swept off his sneakers, and Winslet as the dippy punk chick who turns his ho-hum life topsy-turvy. But it’s their largely subconscious narrative that makes the film memorable, and that story could not have been told without director Gondry’s extraordinary visual imagination.

The Science of Sleep is Gondry’s first solo feature, and it mines a comparable romantic territory. Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) is an introverted young artist who becomes attracted to his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an aspiring textile artist. Instead of traveling into the subconscious, the film explores the spillover from dreams—both the waking and sleeping kind—into “real life.” Alone in his apartment, Stéphane fantasizes that he’s the host of his own TV show, in a studio imagined out of cardboard. He takes a job at a low-budget calendar company, and has outrageous dreams of wrecking havoc on his co-workers, who do not appreciate his surrealist paintings of plane crashes and other disasters. In one puppetry-styled dream, an old electric razor grows tarantula legs and attacks his boss. As he falls in love with Stéphanie, the borders between his various dream states dissolve.

Gondry’s visuals are mischievously inventive—especially the recurring use of cellophane for water—but tend to be overly thematic. Instead of using photogenic absurdity to augment the story, which he did brilliantly in Eternal Sunshine, Gondry has an artistic agenda that is noticeably preplanned (around cardboard, cellophane, and felt). As Stéphane’s relationship with his cautious neighbor fitfully progresses, his mechanically old-fashioned inventions (he gives her a telepathy helmet, and she charmingly pretends it works), and the objects of his dreams become less machinelike and more tactile, culminating with a galloping cloth horse (featured in the movie’s promo posters). Similarly, his linguistic shifts between Spanish, French and English are calculated for the occasional bit of cleverness (“I’m schizometric!”).

The relationship between the two artists is blandly bittersweet: Stéphanie is as grounded as a rutabaga, and grows increasingly apprehensive as Stéphane’s eccentric attentions become more crazed. He confides in despair to a co-worker: “She changed the exact second I started to like her. I wish we could go back to when I didn’t think she was pretty.” That’s the best line in the movie; the lack of Kaufman’s verbal brio is Gondry’s most noticeable failing as an auteur. The zany antics of Stéphane’s bored co-workers are marred by their course and uninspired repartee, as is Stéphane’s wooing of his neighbor. He’s supposed to be a social nincompoop, but as countless romantic underdogs have proven, bumbling a seduction with inept compliments is a great opportunity for a snappy writer. Stéphane’s crudity following a whimsical shared moment with Stéphanie—they use cellophane from the faucet to douse a flaming doll-man on the street—falls especially flat. It doesn’t help that Bernal’s (familiarly) boyish zeal is dampened by Gainsbourg’s characteristic naturalism.

Had The Science of Sleep been directed by an auteur of lesser expectations, it could be viewed as an amusing and slightly poignant trifle. But arriving as it did in the brilliant glow of Eternal Sunshine, it’s a likely candidate for most disappointing release of the year.

Animal Crackers

Open Season

Directed by Roger Allers and Jill Culton

Sony Pictures’ offering to the world of kiddie animated flicks proves to be a visually striking, if narratively pedestrian, rehash of a dozen other movies in which animals talk, cavort and generally make mincemeat of that inferior intellect known as human. As in hunter.

Boog (Martin Lawrence) is a, er, cuddly grizzly, who has been raised since his rescue as an orphan cub by goodhearted Ranger Beth (Debra Messing). Their cute “animals are our friends” show at the park is ruined when Elliott (Ashton Kutcher), a one-antlered buck, shows up, ostensibly to rescue the very mild-mannered Boog from domesticity. Earlier, the bear had untied Elliott from the hood of a pickup owned by Shaw (Gary Sinise), the meanest, dirtiest, worstest hunter that ever lived. One look at Shaw’s ramshackle shack, later in the movie, gives us all the proof that we didn’t need that this guy is evil; he has taxidermed just about all manner of animal species, right down to the bottom half of a skunk. When Boog, and Elliott, are returned to the wild, Shaw follows in hot pursuit, bent on revenge. Too bad for the critters that all this happens right as the park’s three-day “open season” for hunting begins.

The movie has some genuinely creative, often hysterical moments, including one that, believe it or not, involves deer scat that paradoxically is as refreshing as it is, well, yucky. Lawrence and Kutcher do an amiable take on the Myers-Murphy shtick from Shrek, by way of the Goodman-Spade patter from The Emperor’s New Groove, and so on. There’s a refreshing lack of catering to the supposedly hipper parent element in the audience, other than the aforementioned PC overdrive with respect to all things hunter. The animals have their day, with sly nods to Braveheart, courtesy of a Scottish-brogued squirrel (Billy Connelly), and the inventiveness that the filmmakers use to depict just how this comes about is fairly clever. Best of all, the visuals are lush and tactile, from the coarseness of Boog’s fur to the liquidity of roaring whitewaters.

—Laura Leon

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