The Science of Sleep (2006)

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).

-Brandon Ledet

Mood Indigo (2014)



The word “twee” is a loaded descriptor that is sure to chase away a large section of any potential audience. A lot of people bristle at the mere mention of twee, generally construing it as a brand of unbridled, whimsical cuteness. That dismissive conception entirely disregards the bottomless depression of twee genre staples like Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Todd Solondz, and the music of Belle & Sebastian. It’s a bookish, sentimental sort of sadness, but twee generally plays its grief so close to the heart that it becomes extremely difficult to differentiate it from the heights of its cheery sweetness. Any twee work that’s worth a damn is just as depressing as it is joyful; the problem is that a lot of audiences don’t find any of it worth a damn to begin with.

Director Michel Gondry has received near universal acclaim for his music video work with acts like Björk & The White Stripes, but whenever he helms a feature film his name has a tendency to be an automatic turnoff for a lot of folks just as much as some people are turned off by the mere mention of the twee genre he often gets categorized within. His films, (titles like The Silence of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) can be downright infuriating when you’re not on their wavelength, but they can also be deeply rewarding for those not alienated by their fanciful sentiments. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of Gondry’s, finding his films to range from pretty good to absolutely fantastic. My only slight qualm with his filmmaking style is that he always feels somewhat restrained by the format, like he needs to bend over backwards to justify the dreamlike loopiness of his practical effects visuals with a narrative purpose. In his short-form music video work, Gondry was free to experiment with visual techniques and surreal logic without having to provide context for their existence (like the video stores, dream sequences, and memory erasure in the titles mentioned above), but that sense of liberation has been difficult for him to translate to feature films.

In a lot of ways last year’s Mood Indigo finds Gondry at last discovering that sense of freedom on the silver screen. The film’s narrative makes no attempt to justify Gondry’s visual whimsy, but instead rolls with it as if it were a normal part of everyday life. It’s not a film that’s going to win over Gondry’s detractors, but it is instead one that caters to his established audience, assuming they are already game for the intricate, dreamlike quirk he is sure to throw at them. Entirely unrestrained, Gondry allows his imagination to run wild here, like an especially quirky Rube Goldberg contraption on the fritz.

Mood Indigo is just crawling with weird, loopy inventions like alarm bells that infest kitchen walls like bugs, pianos that mix hard liquor “harmonic cocktails”, see-though plexiglass limousines, elephant-shaped tanks, and a species of bird people that takes that concept even more literally than the movie Bird People. The film’s first half is a frantic flurry of Gondry whimsy that gets so overly excited that its elements blend together, causing a strange sort of synesthesia: vinyl records can be watched, food can be heard, sounds can be drank, etc. If the pace of the first half had kept up its blinding speed even I might’ve turned on the film. It’s a near-exhausting flood of strange ideas that begin to feel as if they are connected by no unifying concept at all, as if Gondry were the Richard Kelly of twee. Fortunately, if you stick with the film, it eventually relents and begins to reveal it does indeed have a very strict method to its madness. As the protagonist says to a friend, “Despite the complexity of your words you might be onto something.”

The loopy dream logic of Mood Indigo initially feels formless, but it’s eventually revealed that the movie’s fundamental reality is influenced directly by the mood of the characters that inhabit it. The film tells the basic full-cycle story of a life-long relationship from lovers being introduced by friends at a party to their blissful marriage to their eventual dissolution. The constantly shifting, optimistically energized mood of the first half (wherein everything from the food to the household appliances feels alive & happy) fades as the central couple suffers through sickness & poverty, a change sparked by a seemingly harmless water lily. As the mood sours, the pace slows tremendously; the walls literally start closing in, cobwebs form over once sunshine-blessed windows, characters age rapidly, and ominous shadows start coming to life. One character explains, “As you go through life spaces seem smaller.” It’s a sad statement that rings punishingly true as the ostensibly invincible young love from early in the film succumbs to the pressure of life’s heaviest burdens and the even the frame of the film itself begins to constrict & turn grey.

Mood Indigo is almost certain to alienate the twee-averse very early in its proceedings and may even push a large part of the remaining audience a little too far (the same way an increasingly fussy Wes Anderson has seemingly been testing how much Wes Anderson people can take in recent titles like Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel). From what I understand, the film’s original European cut was a full 40 minutes longer than the American home video version and that massive edits were made to cut down on its overabundance of ideas. Honestly, that extra 40 minutes probably would’ve poisoned even my viewing experience and I really, really liked the movie. As is, Mood Indigo is a spontaneous, lively film balanced out by the soul-crushing dread of its final hour. For audiences already on board with Gondry’s hyperbolic visual imagination, it’s refreshing to see the director set free by such a vague narrative structure as a gradually shifting mood and Mood Indigo might rank among titles like Eternal Sunshine as his best work. For those who find the idea of that lack of restraint insufferable, it’s best that you stay far, far away. If nothing else, the movie finds Gondry at his Gondriest, which can go either way for you depending on your tolerance of the heights & depths of both Gondry & twee.

Mood Indigo is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

-Brandon Ledet