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The Science of Sleep - feature

Sleep talking

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Boy meets girl makes for a surprisingly original film in the hands of director Michel Gondry, as James Mottram discovers.

A love story set in Paris might not sound like terribly promising material, but Michel Gondry lets his feverish imagination run riot in The Science of Sleep. The resulting romantic fantasia is undoubtedly one of the most original films of the past year.

The film starts as young dreamer Stéphane, played by Gael García Bernal, moves into a Parisian apartment after his mother finds him a job. He has recently returned to France from Mexico and finds himself living next to the shy-but-spirited Stéphanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stéphane is so bashful that he can’t even bring himself to tell her he lives next door.

He is depressed by his mundane job at a small company producing calendars and dreams of a more creative existence. But his boss and co-workers fail to recognise his unique talents. So instead he takes refuge in a dream world in which he is a confident Casanova, making sweet music to woo his beloved.

After being a slave to the vision of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for his first two films, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry was clearly itching to unleash his imagination on his own feature-length script. But Gondry, who was credited with reviving the music video format in the 1990s, admits to feeling under pressure to succeed with his first outing as writer-director.

In The Science of Sleep, he delves into the world of dreams in much the same way as Eternal Sunshine dealt with memory. Blending the rustic feel of his early videos for his own band Oui Oui with the technical innovation seen in his work for The White Stripes, Björk and Massive Attack, Gondry makes Stéphane’s dreamscape come to life via some marvellous stop-motion animation. Completed two years ago, some six months before the live-action element was shot, these sequences boast a homespun quality that’s reminiscent of the iconic video for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’.

‘The hand-crafted quality is important to me,’ says Gondry. ‘I wanted the animation to look as if Stéphane has done it. In a way, he tries to control his dreams and build them.’

As you might expect, Gondry sees the nature of dreams in film terms. ‘It’s the only lived experience we have with a sort of editing,’ he says. ‘In life, there is no curtain.’

While he confesses that his take on dreams is more emotional than scientific, he did spend a lot of time reading books about the subject before making the film. ‘Obviously, I have some interest in remembering my dreams,’ he says. ‘Not necessarily understanding them but seeing how they come together.’

He even adapted one of his dreams for the film, the scene in which Bernal drives a cardboard car. ‘That dream, I had it just before I was shooting and it was really very sickening. It was really horrible.’

‘In my dream, I was an actor who committed suicide, and I realised that this guy had really killed himself, which was why I dreamt I was him. It was really frightening.’

A divorcee living in New York with his son, Gondry says The Science of Sleep is inspired by his own ‘past experiences of rejection’ by women when he was an art student in Paris.

This theme is taken up by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She says, ‘I think it’s very personal to Michel. He’s a very complicated guy. But I also think it’s close to the screenwriter who wrote for him before, Charlie Kaufman. He didn’t write this one but it is close in spirit.’

Given that the film deals with a relationship dogged by failure, as Eternal Sunshine did, Gainsbourg’s point is a sound one. Yet Gondry, who feels critics viewed him as a ‘journeyman’ when he directed Kaufman’s two scripts, is not so happy with this comparison. ‘Why would she say that?’ he says, half joking. ‘I’m going to call her and complain!’

After he’s recovered from this personal affront, Gondry explains why he cast Gainsbourg, the daughter of iconic French singer-songwriter Serge and the British actress and singer Jane Birkin. ‘I think it was because Gael had a crush on her,’ he jokes, before getting serious. ‘She has this thing where you don’t know exactly what’s going on in her head. At the same time, she can be really reassuring. She’s not only fragile or enigmatic. She has this thing that makes you feel good, that the character [of Stéphane] gets addicted to. He gets addicted to the sound of her voice. He feels that he’s at home with her. But she doesn’t have the same feeling with him.’

Gainsbourg, who was born in London and raised by her bilingual mother but grew up mainly speaking French, admits she fell for Bernal while working with him. ‘Oh, he’s so sweet. He’s really sweet. I really liked him,’ she says.

The Science of Sleep features arguably Gainsbourg’s best film performance to date. Her character, a vulnerable, introverted city girl with hidden creative depths, is a role well suited to the actress, who, perhaps not surprisingly given her pedigree, also dabbles in music. She collaborated with Parisian electro duo Air, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker on her latest album, last autumn’s 5:55.

Gainsbourg describes working with Gondry as one of the highlights of her acting career. ‘[The Science of Sleep] is charming and very original. It was great to make because it was so small, one of the best films I’ve made in the sense that it had a very small crew and we were all just having fun. It was a very quick and exciting experience.’

For Gondry, making the movie wasn’t such a love affair. With the film made in French, outside the studio system and minus Kaufman’s input, he was very conscious that his first outing as writer-director could suffer from being rebuffed as he once was by legions of women.

‘Without Charlie, who was very opinionated on a lot of issues, I felt naked,’ he admits. ‘I had to go through that and prove to myself I could do it. And I was ready to fail. I’m always ready to fail. It’s something I talk about a lot with Charlie. We agree that when we do a project, we have to have the chance of failing - otherwise we don’t deserve any success.’

The Science of Sleep is on general release from Fri 16 Feb.

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