Eternal sunshine of the sleeping mind

'The Science of Sleep' traces a dreamer's retreat from reality.

Michel Gondry is known for music videos and movies such as "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Human Nature," both scripted by Charlie Kaufman. His latest film, the playfully inventive "The Science of Sleep," seems like a Kaufman conceit, but Gondry wrote it himself.

Gael García Bernal, who seems to be in every fifth movie these days, plays Stéphane, who has always had a difficult time separating illusion from reality. Since his imagination is so much more fanciful than his everyday existence, he increasingly retreats into a fanstasyscape where he imagines himself the impresario of a variety show called "Stéphane TV," starring himself.

On the cooking segment of the show, he mixes memories, songs, and streams of consciousness in order to demonstrate the recipe for how dreams are prepared. He also demonstrates his theory of "Parallel Synchronized Randomness," which, if you pare away all the metaphysical hoo-ha, says that like-minded people will find each other.

This theory becomes especially pertinent when Stéphane discovers his new neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the Paris apartment building he recently moved into at the behest of his worried mother, who is also the landlady. For a while, Stéphane tries to hide from Stéphanie the fact that he lives across the hall (though she figures it out anyway).

Gondry plays with our expectations. Instead of showing us a pairing of soulmates, he depicts a gradual separation. As Stéphane becomes more and more boisterously eccentric, Stéphanie's affections retreat. He demonstrates to her his many crackpot inventions, which include glasses that enable the wearer to see the world in 3-D. But, she counters, isn't the world already in 3-D?

Considering how wacky this zig-zag movie often is, it's surprising to discover how touching it is, too. (This was also true of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.") Stéphane's innerscape immersions, which Gondry visualizes for us by using all manner of animated and blue-screen effects, are as disturbing as they are funny.

Stéphane's job with a calendar publisher provides yet another opportunity for him to vent his imaginings: He designs a calendar that marks each month with a famous disaster, an earthquake, a plane crash, and so on. His "Disastrology" drawings mirror his own unraveling.

"The Science of Sleep" is very difficult to characterize and that's why I like it. The best I can do is to call it a sunny tragedy. Grade: B+

Rated R for language, some sexual content, and nudity.

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