The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was like Sara Lee cheesecake: Nobody didn’t like it. Brainy enough for a cog-sci course syllabus and romantic enough for a first (or last) date, Eternal Sunshine was the most memorable film of 2004, even if it was all about the erasure of memory.
But in another feat of selective remembering, people tended to talk about Eternal Sunshine as if it were a Charlie Kaufman movie. Kaufman, the rug-pulling screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, provided the literate and intricately plotted script, but the achingly beautiful images—the fence that disappeared, post by post, as the two lovers ran alongside it, or the house that crumbled around them as their shared history rushed toward oblivion—came from French director Michel Gondry, best known for making music videos for the likes of Beck, Björk, and the White Stripes. Now Gondry has written and directed a new film, The Science of Sleep (Warner Independent Pictures), that will prompt the inevitable comparisons with Eternal Sunshine. But it also pads off, in footie pajamas, into new territory of its own.
Stéphane Miroux (Gael García Bernal) is a frustrated artist and inventor who works a dreary day job designing girlie calendars in a basement. He is a childlike dreamer who still lives in his mother’s apartment (she’s played by Miou-Miou, the former urchin of the French New Wave) and sleeps in his boyhood bedroom under a blanket printed with spaceships. At night, he dwells in an egotistical alternate universe as the sole creator and star of “Stéphane TV,” where he interviews himself about his own brilliance and visits his past and future on interactive screens.
Stéphane also flies with the birds, swims with the fishes, and plays in an imaginary band whose members dress as cats. But he moves less freely in the world of real people. When a pretty young woman named Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in across the hall, he makes a massive bungle of his crush on her, babbling in incomprehensible French (Bernal’s character was written as half-French, half-Mexican to explain this language problem) and pretending to be interested in her friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes).
True to the twinship implied by their names, Stéphane and Stéphanie find sudden and magical common ground when they embark together on an arts-and-crafts project involving a camera, some strips of cellophane, and a small felt boat (the hand-sewn felt objects attributed to Stéphanie and made in real life by artist Lauri Faggioni are one of the high points of the film). But Stéphanie is a more down-to-earth dreamer than her high-strung neighbor, and she resists his clumsy romantic overtures—wisely, we come to think, as Stéphane’s whimsy edges ever closer to delusion.
At moments, The Science of Sleep seems to come down harshly on its fey hero, edging toward a critique of the artist as narcissistic twit. But finally it cuts Stéphane a generous amount of slack, ending on a wistful, ambiguous note that may or may not champion the ascendance of fantasy over reality. How you feel about that ending may depend on how much slack you’re willing to cut for artistic, self-absorbed boys with elaborate dream worlds—boys, perhaps, like Michel Gondry. To me, the movie feels like a small but ingeniously crafted gift, like the stuffed horse Stéphane outfits with a tiny motor for his beloved’s pleasure.
But whatever your take on the movie’s final scene, you can’t help but root for Bernal and Gainsbourg to get together. Physically, they’re cut from the same cloth: androgynous and coltish, with graceful hands and dark, velvety eyes—and their onscreen connection gives off real warmth instead of the usual movie-star fireworks. It’s beyond me why Gainsbourg, the daughter of the great French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, hasn’t yet become a French export on the level of Juliette Binoche. She may not be acting, exactly—she projected the same air of self-possessed intensity in Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre as she does here. But even with her hair uncombed, perpetually wearing the same raggedy sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, Stéphanie is the most believably desirable love object I’ve seen onscreen since, well, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. If she were my neighbor, I’d build a robotic felt pony for her, too.
Kaufman’s script gave Eternal Sunshine a universality that the intimately autobiographical Science of Sleep lacks. The stakes here are lower, since Stéphane and Stéphanie’s halting love affair feels like their love affair, not a template through which each viewer can read his own romantic past. But, like Eternal Sunshine, this movie understands something about the way lovers develop their own language, their own mythology, and, finally, their own pathology.