Monday, February 19, 2007

Cinema: The Science of Sleep

Despite its fantastical imagery and playful tendencies,'The Science of Sleep', the new film by Michel Gondry reminded me of one of Roman Polanski's early works, 'Repulsion', in which a young Belgian woman played by Catherine Deneuve, descends into madness cooped up in her London flat. Here, Stephane, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a Mexican artist cut adrift in Paris who becomes obsessed with his neighbour, Stephanie, who, he says, has a similar personality to his recently deceased father. What at first appears to be a love story, is in fact a disquieting study in grief and insanity.
It is clear from the outset that Stephan is simply unable to exist in what we could loosely call the 'real world'. He has come to Paris, after the death of his father in Mexico, in the mistaken belief his French mother has set him up as an illustrator in a calendar publishing company. It transpires that the position is more akin to that of dogsbody and Stephan's petulant response that he is an artist, one who specialises in disaster scenes, is an early sign of his revulsion at the fact that the world doesn't recognise his talents. Meanwhile, his fellow workers have long since taken on board the concept of 'absolute indifference' and are content to play out their days in name calling and pranks.
Back in the family's old apartment, where he sleeps in his childhood bed, Stephan retreats ever more into a dream world where he is sometimes the star of his own television show, other times the creator of new and improbable cities.
A girl, Stephanie (the name suggesting she is yet another figment of his imagination), played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, moves in across the hall and soon she becomes the focus of his obsessive personality.
If you get past the relentless visual invention, which is delivered at a frenetic pace, the film charts Stephan's mental decline triggered by the collapse of his family, the death of his father and his failure as an artist. Seeming at first to be an innocent abroad, Stephan's behaviour gets increasingly erratic and sinister; after cracking his head open against a door, he disinhibits, reflecting that a toothless mouth is better for a blow job, a fact he counsels Stephanie to consider before getting her cluttered teeth treated by a dentist. At the end, he lies curled in a foetal ball, dreaming of riding a horse across an open plain with the object of his affection.
Perhaps the absence of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Gondry's last film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, explains the lack of an American feel-good finish or heart warming message to sign off with. Instead we are left with a bleaker,darker, more, dare I say, European ending as the real world is finally shut out, the descent into delusion complete.

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