Director Michel Gondry's last two non-documentary features, "Human Nature" (2001) and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), were scripted by the incomparable Charlie Kaufman, his perfect foil. Kaufman's brilliantly structured surrealism is acutely missed in Gondry's messy and tedious new movie, "The Science of Sleep."
Gondry is a visual artist of rare talent and inspiration, as is clear in the music videos he's made for such acts as the White Stripes, the Chemical Brothers, and, most famously, Björk. At the age of 43, he has managed to preserve an imaginative openness that's more common to childhood, and his visual conceptions have a free-wheeling charm that's distinctively his own. Kaufman, whose own imaginative openness operates in the area of warped but still-solid plotting, provided Gondry with a stable narrative arena within which to run free. In "Sleep," which the director wrote himself, and which is drawn from his own dream life, that anchoring element is essentially dispensed with, and the result is no longer childlike; it's infantile.
The story concerns a young man whose dreams are bleeding into his waking life, and threatening to take it over. Following the death of his Mexican father, the trusting Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) comes to Paris at the invitation of his French mother (Miou-Miou), who installs him in an apartment and secures a job for him with a small company that makes calendars. Stéphane hopes to launch himself as a graphic designer, but his proposal for a "disaster calendar," in which each month would be illustrated with earthquakes, mid-air plane explosions and other catastrophes, finds no favor ("The customer needs a little bit of a sense of humor," he tells his flabbergasted boss), and he is relegated to the position of a lowly office drone.
Things are different in Stéphane's dreams, where he is the star of "Stéphane TV," a never-ending variety series, shot with cardboard cameras, in which he plays keyboards and drums (Gondry was once a rock-band drummer himself), and also offers cooking demonstrations. Sometimes, for some reason, he does these things while wearing a furry, full-body teddy-bear suit. Before long, his fellow office workers start turning up on this imaginary show; and back at the office, where a cartoon cityscape sways alarmingly outside the windows, his hands blow up to the size of inflatable rowboats, the better to bat his stuffy boss around.
Stéphane also has a love interest of sorts, a girl named, for no blindingly clear reason, Stéphanie (the endearing Charlotte Gainsbourg), who lives across the hall from his apartment. Their relationship is childish, and determinedly non-carnal. In fact, it hardly qualifies as a relationship at all — at one point, Stéphane proposes marriage to Stéphanie, but then quickly tells her to forget it, he wasn't serious. As with so much else in the movie, this incident may have meaning for the director, but for anyone else not resident in his head, it's hard to process.
The fantasy effects in the picture are radically low-tech (its budget was reportedly around $6 million), but some of them — like a kitchen faucet that pours out a sparkling stream of cellophane — have a sweet, winning dreaminess. There are some clever ideas, too, like a time machine Stéphane has invented, which can transport the user into the past or the future, but only by a matter of seconds. (Stéphane utters some words, then flips the switch into the past and immediately utters them again.) And there are occasional funny lines, as when Stéphane stomps out of a chaotic dream-time band rehearsal muttering, "I'm exhausted. I'm gonna wake up now."
But while Bernal and the rest of the cast are fearlessly committed to their roles, the roles don't add up to characters, and there's no reason for us to care about them, or anything they do. (Characters that we can care about are something that even the most schematic fairy tales require.) Gondry's introverted and untethered whimsy becomes oppressive, and very quickly boring. Watching the movie brings to mind the novelist G.K. Chesterton's observation that art requires limitation: "The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame." Lacking any real grounding limitation, "The Science of Sleep" drifts away into woozy inconsequence.
"Renaissance": A Future Darkly
This striking French film — a hard-boiled noir set in a ravishingly futuristic Paris — all but erases the boundary between live-action and computer animation. First-time feature director Christian Volckman, working with the young digital prodigy Marc Miance and the architect and "set" designer Alfred Frazzani, has created a richly complex black-and-white world that feels like a comic book, but caroms around like real life. It's something sort of new.
The movie's action has been achieved with motion-capture technology (no yawning, please), but the images have been rendered in inky blacks and glaring, searchlight whites, with very little intermediate grading. The result is a commanding visual style that somewhat suggests the work of Frank Miller, but not the film version of his "Sin City" comics. Among other things, "Renaissance" avoids the impossibly wild comic-book camera angles of that picture in favor of more traditional live-action setups, which add an additional element of realism. In fact, as much as its look may owe to the world of graphic novels, the movie's dark emotional tone, and even some of its pictorial details, derive from such film-noir classics as "The Third Man," "The Big Clock" and, most directly, the future-Paris of Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film "Alphaville."
In "Renaissance," the year is 2054, and Paris is a more crowded and overbuilt place than the city of today (and maybe rainier, too). The cluttered commercial environment is dominated by the talking billboards of the Avalon Corporation, a shadowy genetics firm whose products offer consumers both beauty and longevity. ("We're on your side — for life.") When a top Avalon research scientist named Illona Tasuiev goes missing, the company panics and calls in a tough top cop, Barthélémy Karas, to find her. Karas is soon joined by Illona's estranged older sister, Bislane, and together they discover that Illona was working on a secret, long-term Avalon project called the Renaissance Protocol. Before long, they become involved with, among others, Illona's elliptic mentor, Dr. Jonas Muller; a fat gangster called Farfella; and the head of the Avalon Corporation, a sinister suit named Dellenbach. (The film's characters are voiced, in English, by such actors as Daniel Craig, Ian Holm, Jonathan Pryce and Catherine McCormack.) As Karas and Bislane pursue a series of leads into Illona's disappearance, and into the mysterious Renaissance Protocol, they realize that they're being pursued themselves. Eventually, to their horror, they learn why.
The story is interesting enough. But the picture's most fascinating aspect is its startling graphic detail. Despite their severely limited tonal palette, the filmmakers pull off some remarkably delicate effects: the subtle reflection of a face in a window streaming with rain; wisps of steam rising off the surface of a heated swimming pool; the characters' darting eyes and flicking lashes; and, all around, the swirl and clamor of an intricately imagined Paris, from the dark banks of the Seine down into the city's roaring sewers and subterranean glass-topped malls. It's a full, living world.
George Lucas has demonstrated with his last three "Star Wars" movies that even the most breathtakingly expensive computer effects can be banal, especially when heaped onto a dumb story. "Renaissance" deploys its far more modest effects with fresh invention, and it conjures up a welcome sense of wonder. The picture also reportedly cost only $18 million to make. Discuss.
— Kurt Loder
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