The worst possible plot twist in any movie, book or story is: "It was only a dream." It's the literary equivalent of saying, "Ha ha, you wasted your time reading this! Now go outside and feel betrayed."
The difficulty with dreams is that they have no causal relation to the world, so if someone has a dream and then wakes up, whatever happened in the dream becomes inconsequential to the story. But somehow, Michel Gondry has produced a story loaded with "it's only a dream" moments that completely avoids this problem.
In The Science of Sleep, Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) is a young man who is unable to fully distinguish dreams from reality. In fact, he frequently dreams while awake and then acts upon what he believes to be true.
So his dreams do affect his life, and usually for the worse. Luckily, those dreams are realized by Gondry, who has the visual of sensibility of Maurice Sendak crossed with Salvador Dali crossed with the cast of Zoom circa 1973.
Gondry's first great decision is to eschew digital effects and make his dream worlds out of cardboard, cotton and felt. They're gorgeous, rich and sumptuous, the kind of moving sculptures that Matthew Barney would make if he weren't obsessed with Vaseline and testicles.
So when Stéphane flies through cotton clouds on a stuffed pony, it's the visual equivalent of being hugged by a million puppy kittens. And yet, the cuteness never becomes cancerous.
This is mostly because of Gondry's deft script, which makes Stéphane act like an overgrown baby with an erection, i.e., like your average 20-year-old. He veers quickly from wide-eyed panting love to gross sexual frankness. It's kind of like watching Strawberry Shortcake ask for a blowjob.
The story commences when Stéphane moves to Paris from Mexico. Installing himself in his childhood home, he lays down on a tiny, painted bed in a room full of toys and then falls in love with his neighbor, Stéphanie. She's played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the joliest jolie-laide even born. Even though she has her father's facial features propped on top of a stick-figure body, Charlotte has managed to become an international sex symbol.
Her weird and compelling look is just right for the dream world that Stéphane inhabits. When Stéphane tells Stéphanie, "Your boobs are very friendly," it seems entirely true, and it is as sad and pretty and creepy and cute as a picture of JonBenet Ramsey getting hugged by Michael Jackson's pet chimp.
Of course, since this is a film, just because boy wants girl, it doesn't mean boy immediately gets girl, and Stéphane spends much of his time pining for the artistic and inaccessible Stéphanie. Together, they make a toy world of felt boats and cellophane rivers that come to life and transport them to romantic lands of pony love, but when the dream ends, Stéphane is too strange and needy for Stéphanie's comfort.
And Stéphane's dreams keep getting in the way. He thinks Stéphanie has stood him up, even though she waited hours for him. He sleepwalks to her apartment and leaves an insane, rambling note indicating he's in love with her best friend. His hands grow to be the size of the U.S. defense budget, preventing him from having proper hugging. And all he wants is good hugging, and maybe some tender, fluffy oral love.
Which presents Gondry with the film's second-most difficult narrative problem: how to end the boy-meets-girl movie without resorting either to the simplistic boy-gets-girl ending or the bathetic boy-loses-girl ending.
Shockingly, Gondry finds a way out that evolves naturally from the character's previous interactions. The final 10 minutes of the film are riveting and disturbing and reek of the elements of young love that never get displayed on the screen.
The only thing to fault in Gondry's film is that he occasionally becomes too enchanted by the power of his sets and animations and leaves the story behind for pure prettiness. Thus, as most films do, this one drags a bit in the middle. But he more than makes up for it with the finale.
Novice cinematographer Jean-Louis Bompoint manages to make the dreams and reality separate without making the distinctions so clean that they take away from the magic of the film. And the acting is all perfect. Bernal's difficult role, that of the child/man, is handled in precisely the way it should be: While the actions are unreal, the feelings are painfully natural.
Gainsbourg is a pro and is as good here as she always is. Someone should force America's overly broad actors to watch her muted but intense style so that they stop with the kind of histrionics that win Oscars and supply William Shatner and Meryl Streep with their storehouse of gestures, tics and voices.
But ultimately, the film belongs to Gondry and his wild vision. As he did in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he uses sets to convey feelings so deftly that it's as though the actors' minds are made visible in their surroundings. The Science of Sleep isn't perfect, but it's about as perfect as a movie about dreams could be.