About 3/4 of the way through Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, strange, salty water started leaking from my eyes and running down my cheeks. It was completely involuntary and it happened because somewhere inside myself I knew that The Science of Sleep would soon come to an end. Imagination is so rarely celebrated -- at least in America -- and creativity is infrequently as unconstrained -- the film is like water to a parched desert, a two-hour downpour, but you know the drought will return when it has come to an end.
The film starts deep inside the subconscious of Stéphane (Gael García Bernal), who hosts his own imaginary TV show. He is cooking up a dream, choosing the proper ingredients and showing how they are best prepared. Then the dream/the film begins with flying colors -- literally -- and it is a love story (with many reversals) between Stéphane and his new neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It's the perfect date movie, because you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved, and that stone would need to be thick.
But the film is really a romantic ode to the imagination. It is about communication, how we can each be so far inside our own reality that it is almost a miracle when someone else gains entry, when someone else understands us -- and that is love. It's no accident that the protagonists are named Stéphane and Stéphanie, the male and female of the same root, as they are definitely suited to one another, each residing inside his or her own imagination and each holding the key to the other's.
What's amazing about The Science of Sleep -- other than the hand-crafted wonder of gorgeous, rough-hewn cardboard-cut-out landscapes and floating cotton clouds (in this age of computer-generated explosions) -- is how it cares little about the establishment of a clear line between "dream" and "reality." The film acknowledges its own dream-ness and can't be bothered to construct a false "real" just to make the audience comfortable or the story plausible. Perhaps this is because the filmmakers have freed themselves from the tyranny of language.
While I was watching The Science of Sleep, I was reminded of the new Brazilian Girls CD, Talk to la Bomb (Read review), wherein every song is sung using multiple languages, phrases chosen from each tongue to suit the mood and the moment. English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese are employed whenever the emotion is best expressed in that particular language. Perhaps the world of international DJ culture has come into its own -- globe-trotting polyglots making art that transcends international borders. The Science of Sleep breaks down the boundaries between reverie and reality, the languages spoken onscreen while asleep and awake are many.
As I left the theater, I wiped the memory of tears from my cheeks. They flowed partially from the sheer joy of watching an original and unbridled imagination run amok, but also a little sadness crept in (as it often does lately) about the state of American culture. It is perplexing that our country's reaction to globalization has taken such a surreal turn. We struggle to pass laws that declare English our "official" language. We desire a great wall between ourselves and our neighbor to the south. We mortgage away the future of the children who will grow up lacking the language skills and creative education to compete in an ever-shrinking international environment. While France exports The Science of Sleep -- a joyous vision of the life of the creative mind, we export Snakes on a Plane.
OK. We have our equivalents (Being John Malkovich, I Heart Huckabees, Rushmore, Gondry's own Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.), but if we really are in a "war for the hearts and minds" of global citizens, why aren't these products being used as our not-so-secret weapons? The kinder, gentler films, the ones that portray a quirky and complex American landscape aren't even distributed to the hinterlands of America, much less marketed beyond our borders. Perhaps people around the globe don't "hate us because of our freedom," perhaps they just dislike what we've chosen to do with it.
The Science of Sleep now playing.