Gael Garcia Bernal unplugged

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday September 18, 2006
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Gael Garc'a Bernal in <i>The Science of Sleep</i><br>. Photo: Etienne George.
Gael Garc'a Bernal in The Science of Sleep
. Photo: Etienne George.

"With these glasses, you can see real life in 3-D."

"Isn't life already in 3-D?"

"Yeah, but come on."

In his screen persona at least, Gael Garcia Bernal has never met a girl he couldn't possess, or a guy either. So it comes as a bit of a shock to see the Mexican-born king of romance play a romantically challenged Parisian visual artist who pines for the girl next door, but who makes an odd impression when he's actually with her. Stephane's problem is that he lives in his head, or rather his dreams – and if you had dreams like Stephane's, you'd probably want to live there, too.

In his dreams, Stephane is the host of his own TV show, complete with home cooking tips (a recipe for dreams, of course), shoes that tie themselves, and little wooden horses that scamper across the piano. He can fly in these dreams across a city whose buildings are paper cut-outs that spring to life. Waking up is a drag. Stephane's grownup job is at an eccentrically run calendar company where his boss, Guy (popular French comedian Alain Chabat), makes lewd jokes at the expense of the browbeaten staff, leading to some peculiar and mildly amusing sexual banter.

"I could arrange for you to get a blowjob in the dark room."

"Not every man is a sex maniac!"

When Stephane informs Guy that he has a hopeless crush on his next-door neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Guy warns, "She's too pretty, she'll dump you."

Stephanie finds Stephane charming as she might a hyperactive younger brother, but, like the audience, she's not sure how to take him. Since it's impossible to believe that Gael couldn't have anybody he wants, it's writer/director Michel Gondry's problem to erect a plausible barrier to their coupling that can be entertainingly overcome by closing credits.

In Gondry's astonishing collaboration with Charlie Kaufman Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey is heartbroken when he discovers that ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet has hired a company to cleanse her memory of all traces of their life together. Carrey hires the same firm, and the film becomes a breathless race to see if their love can reignite before being forever erased.

In The Science of Sleep, Gondry struggles to convince us that a solid catch like Stephanie would let herself be reeled in by a goofball whom she can see casually, with neither strings nor shoes that tie themselves attached.

The movie is great fun for fans of terminal whimsy: Pee Wee Herman goes to the Exploratorium and never has to go home. As we later discovered, Pee Wee didn't want the girl, but Stephane does. Sadly, Gondry runs out of clever plot tricks before he runs out of film. He badly needs a script-doctor home visit from Kaufman, brilliant at making us believe that a hopeless loser can win outside the confines of his spotless mind.

Science of Sleep is almost overstuffed with visual delights. If you can sit through it once, you may get hooked and have to drag yourself away from the theatre, the way Stephane has to drag himself out of bed. Gradually, his solution is to make his frustrations with his boring job at the calendar company seep into his dreams, which in turn pop up at work, leading to a playful anarchy of nonverbal delights.

The film is mostly in English, and Gael proves a nimble and witty screen comic. For once, no dastardly or duplicitous thoughts are hiding behind that lovely face, and we can enjoy an actor who clearly had a terrific time regressing into his director's favorite adolescent reveries, a time he generously shares with us.

"Would you like to sleep with my girlfriend after I'm dead? The problem is, I don't have a girlfriend, and I'm not dead."