In "The Science of Sleep," Gael García Bernal speaks English, French, Spanish, and the language of his director, Michel Gondry, whose preferred mode of expression is dreams. Bernal, as it happens, is agreeably fluent.
When required to play someone approximating what you or I call an adult, he is usually ill-suited for the assignment (maybe you caught him earlier this year as a killer soldier in "The King"). His boyishness becomes him, and Gondry, whose sensibility can hardly be called grown- up, uses that sweet-natured naivete for all it's worth. This pop-up book of a film is an ideal arrangement between director and star.
Bernal's Stephane is an inventor and illustrator, who moves from Mexico into the Paris apartment of his mother (Miou-Miou). His wish is to get his apocalypse calendar distributed. For each month, he's painted a different horror and has gleefully called the thing ``Disastrology." Until its unlikely publication date arrives, he takes a grunt job doing typesetting for a nudie calendar. ("This is not creative!" he cries.) Being a Gondry character, Stephane has a far more interesting inner life than the rest of the world -- although his trio of outlandish coworkers (Alain Chabat, Aurélia Petit, Pierre Vaneck) is one I wouldn't mind sharing an office with. Like a lot of us, Stephane has dreams about his job. In them, the cramped office becomes a longer, stranger place, like a file cabinet drawer that stretches on forever. (The production design, by Pierre Pell and Stephane Rozenbaum , looks, as it does in most of Gondry's projects, homemade.)
The contents of Stephane's mind look like a public access show produced by a fourth-grade art class. The program is called ``Stephane TV," a one-man variety show (like Gondry, he's a decent drummer). The walls are lined with egg crates. Cameras are made of cardboard. Cooking segments feature old photographs sautéed in olive oil. And a monitor broadcasts the events of his subconscious. The whole production calls to mind Robert De Niro's basement-bound talk show in ``The King of Comedy." ``Stephane TV" is less psychotic, but no less obsessive.
He's fallen in love with the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) across the hall. Her name happens to be Stephanie, and, for better and worse, his pursuit of her occupies the film's core. Stephane's capacity for invention includes his penchant for fabrication. He pretends not to be Stephanie's neighbor, for instance. She's aware of the ruse, and the deceptions begin to worry then exasperate her, setting up the movie's essential conflict over Stephane's sanity. His romanticism might be too pure and quixotic for these times, too poorly suited for real emotional connections. Indeed, Gainsbourg seems older than Bernal in age, yes. But, more crucially, her soul seems older.
Stephane tells Stephanie that what unites them is a phenomenon called Parallel Synchronized Randomness, where two people wind up together because they share the same pattern of thought. That's the sort of cosmic gimmick precocious 12-year-old boys invent to get girls to notice them. But Gondry seems to be wondering whether that approach to love is even viable. His previous movie, ``Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," which Charlie Kaufman wrote, was about the excruciation of love gone cold. That film was a more adult acknowledgment of incompatibility, and Gondry found marvelous visual ways of staging the ensuing ache and childhood regression.
That regression seems fixed in ``The Science of Sleep." Stephane's preferred mode of dreamtime travel involves swimming in a fluid, which, given his child like tendencies, might as well be amniotic. But his breast-stroking by toy sets in a terrific purple suit makes for a lovely series of images that underscore what makes Gondry's moviemaking so wonderfully pure.
His work embodies, somehow, the splendor of childhood experience -- how everything feels new (pain, joy, lust, disappointment, other people) and how that newness is exciting and strange. And Gondry himself applies those very properties to the formal act of filmmaking, which produces joy in us.
Just about everything in Gondry's movies (and his music videos) feels new. You want to relive a scene the minute it's ended. The piano that bounces down a stairwell like a basketball in ``The Science of Sleep" is in obvious defiance of physics and such a giddy transgression that it should be mandatory for every movie. The director's use of image, form, and actors' personalities is rapturous. But like Stephane, he's not very good with the serious side of human relationships.
Where Gondry's videos have made a permanent break with reality, his moviemaking, touchingly, is about the reconciliation of the real and the dreamt. They don't always easily co exist. (``Dave Chappelle's Block Party ," Gondry's documentary from this year, is a vivid exception, with its share of dreamy sights.)
Reality is a cruel intruder in ``The Science of Sleep." Still, it remains a testament to the triumphant nature of Gondry's imagination that reality in this movie feels less real than the fantasies. You're encouraged to mistake one for the other. In some circles, that's called cinema.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.