Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Science of Sleep (La Science des Rêves) -- reality and romance

Director: Michel Gondry, 2006.

Many people want to be "living the dream." But what is the dream? And can we really live it? Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries) is a young inventor-artist who is literally living the dream in French writer-director Gondry's The Science of Sleep. This is not a documentary on sleep, nor is there much science present. But sleep is there with doses of dreams.

Like his earlier movie, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sleep is a visually creative fantasy. Heavy on surreal imagination, it is light on plot. While Spotless Mind was in English, Sleep is a combination of English, French and Spanish, as if Gondry could not quite make up his mind whether to make it a foreign film or not.

We see Stéphane at the start in his "TV studio" shooting a new episode of "Stéphane TV." Given that all the stage equipment, including the cameras and monitors, are made of cardboard, it is clear this is not reality. Rather, it is his dream world. He is back in Paris closer to his French mother, but his job at a calendar-making company does not utilize his greater artistic talents and aspirations.

When he meets his apartment neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), he is smitten with her pixie-like friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes). In their initial interaction, he shows them his new 3-D glasses. "You can see real life in 3-D," he tells them. Stephanie, puzzled, retorts, "Isn't life already in 3-D?" But apparently not for Stéphane: "Yeah, but come on."

For Stéphane reality is both boring and risky. He is too shy and insecure to ask Zoé out but retreats into his dream world where anything can happen. He is the star in that world. His dreams can come true there. And they do, in Monty-Python-esque fashion. With animation that is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's work, cardboard reality replaces real-life.

Stephanie puts her finger on Stéphane's issue: "You have a serious problem of distorting reality." He has blurred the line so much that he cannot tell at times if he is awake or asleep and living out a dream. Unlike The Matrix, where humanity was asleep while living in a perceived reality, here Stéphane intermixes the two even as he seeks escape into dream-life.

Do we at times seek to escape our own realities by delving into dreams, both daydreams and night-dreams? Do we find life so drab that we seek to recreate our own perception of life other than what we can see? Perhaps we do. But reality is still there to be faced. And unlike Stéphane we must deal with it head-on. We do not have the luxury of living in a movie. Dreams can inspire and motivate. Dreams can even communicate messages from our God, as they have for those in the Bible (Gen. 20:3, Abraham; 1 Kings 3:5, Solomon; Matt. 1:20, Joseph, etc). But fundamentally, life is to be lived in the reality of our waking senses.

Gondry brings some terrific ideas into this film. There are some wonderful moments where the magic of Stéphane's dream-world become reality, such as with his floating clouds and cellophane water. His "one-second time machine" is a curious concept. Would a machine that could transport us one-second into either the past or the future be of any value? It seems strangely irrelevant but apropos to his mindset. And it is this kind of quirkiness that will either resonate or repulse the viewer.

This is more than just a fantasy, though. It is intended to be a romance of sorts. Although Stéphane yearns for Zoé, it is Stephanie who is really his soul-mate. Gondry defies all standard stereotypes and makes Stéphane weak and sensitive and then uses Guy (Alain Chabat), a co-worker, as an insensitive foil.

Stéphane and Guy are a study in contrasts. Guy wants a conquest. He is too weak for love. That is not in his vocabulary. For him, everything is sexual. Stéphane wants romance and marriage. For him, everything is idealistic, fantasized in dream-life. He is too shy to make a move. Neither really face reality, the authenticity of true love.

As romances go, this is a far cry from Hollywood. Yet, it is a far cry from reality, too. Romance is a beautiful and mysterious quality but if it only leads to sex then it is superficial and seductive. Romance is designed by God to lead to marriage, which is his plan for the union of man and woman (Gen. 2:24). When we walk in the path of God's ideal, we will find reality is actually better than fictitious dreams. Romance may pale, but a marriage founded in Jesus will endure in love.

Ultimately Sleep does not deliver on its potential because its plot is too thin, but it leaves us pining for reality and true love. We can find both rooted in Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). With him, we will have a life that is better than 3-D (John 10:10); we will be spiritually alive, awake to eternal possibilities (Eph. 2:5). And we will experience a love that is endless and unconditional (John 3:16), something that even the best marriage partner cannot give.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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