I don’t know that we’ve ever given Michel Gondry his full due as a visual stylist and an auteur. While other Twee-era directors who came up while I was a high school art snob are still regularly working and relatively celebrated—Wes Anderson, Miranda July, Spike Jonze, etc.—Gondry’s name isn’t often referenced as one of the aughts’ absolute greats. And yet, his combination of arts & crafts whimsy and gloomy French New Wave dramatics are so specific & idiosyncratic that I often see direct echoes of his work in titles like Dave Made a Maze, Girl Asleep, and Sorry to Bother You (which does name-check Gondry, to its credit). You’d think that this year in particular would be the one that inspired the most breathless, fawning articles on Gondry’s post-Twee legacy, though, considering that two of the best films of the year so far—Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once—are so strongly, undeniably influenced by his work. I wonder if it’s the bitter taste of Gondry’s debut feature as a writer-director (as opposed to his more iconic music video work or his non-writing credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that has tempered his legacy as one of the greats. Beyond its surface-level cuteness, The Science of Sleep is a deeply unpleasant, emotionally troubling watch, which makes it a tough sell as the purest feature-length form of Gondry’s vision as an auteur (despite that being a fairly standard internal conflict for Twee art in the aughts). It’s also pretty great.
Revisiting The Science of Sleep felt like reliving the best and the worst parts of my college years in the aughts: the excitement of for-its-own-sake art collaboration and the complete ineptitude at healthy romantic interaction. I even acquired my used DVD copy of the film in the exact way I would have back in 2007: plucked it off a shelf at the Goodwill (although I just as likely would have found it on a Blockbuster Video liquidation table the first time around). Gael García Bernal stars as a toxic indie scene fuckboy who immaturely rejects the idea of settling for an office job even though his macabre, mediocre illustrations of famous tragedies are never going to pay his bills. He’s a dreamer in the truest sense, struggling to differentiate between his nocturnal fantasies and the doldrums of his waking life. He’s also a selfish baby. When he moves in with his mommy to take a dull calendar-printing job that she arranged for him, he finds himself smitten with her next-door neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The neighbor is delighted by the fuckboy’s crafty creativity and values him as a friend & artistic collaborator. The fuckboy badly wants that friendship to turn into a romance and throws a feature-length temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. From the outside, The Science of Sleep looks like a cute, whimsical romance between a couple of wide-eyed twentysomethings who’ve watched one too many Agnès Varda films. On the inside, it’s a rotten little story about how inept all twentysomethings actually are at friendship & romance, especially entitled young men who don’t know how to handle rejection with grace.
Gondry offers plenty ammunition to audiences who want to treat Twee art as whimsical fluff. The film opens with the whiny babyboy hosting a dreamworld cooking show, explaining to a delighted TV studio audience how dreams are prepared – stirring random thoughts, reminiscences of the day, memories of the past, and earworm pop songs into a giant gumbo pot, and voila. The stop-motion, papier-mâché, cut-and-paste surrealism of the dream sequences that follow is a wholesome delight, in sharp contrast with the toxic, selfish behavior of the manic pixie fuckboy protagonist. Gondry shoots the waking scenes in a handheld documentarian style, while the dream sequences that frequently interrupt that real-world drama directly echo his iconic D.I.Y. dreamworlds in music videos like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl“. In general, I don’t think people give the aughts era of Twee art enough credit for being emotionally challenging & bleak, likely because the romance & whimsy of its visual style is so pronounced. Even at the time, though, The Science of Sleep tasted sourer than most of its peers, smashing the romance of its dreamworld fantasy sequences against its characters’ cruel, immature behavior in a volatile mismatch of tones (as opposed to the more subtle melancholy of most Twee art). It’s a conflict that worked for me a lot more on this recent rewatch than it did at the time, because all I knew then was that the lead made me uncomfortable and the movie wasn’t as romantic as I wanted it to be. That discomfort feels more purposeful & self-aware now, especially since I can see my younger self’s worst behavior reflected in the main character’s glaring faults.
Gondry continued to work well after The Science of Sleep, with plenty of highs & lows in his creative flow. His underseen, underrated drama Mood Indigo was an excellent continuation of the bittersweet Twee of his debut; his director-for-hire work on the superhero action comedy The Green Hornet was an all-around disaster; and the quirky crowd-pleaser Be Kind Rewind falls somewhere in-between those extremes. I’m not sure he ever recovered from the perception that his debut as a writer-director was a step down from his much more beloved work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though, which in effect made Charlie Kaufmann appear to be the true genius behind that project. That’s a shame, since I find Gondry to be the more consistently rewarding, emotionally engaging artist of that pair, and the works that have been inspired by his distinct visual style are more often among the best new releases of their respective years (whereas I can die happy without ever seeing another Kaufmann-inspired psych drama about writer’s block, or whatever).