THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP
starring Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat, Miou-Miou
written and directed by Michel Gondry
starring Jet Li, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Dong Yong
screenplay by Chris Chow, Christine To
directed by Ronny Yu
by Walter Chaw A cacophony of cascading whimsy, Michel Gondry's exercise in Freudian bric-a-brac The Science of Sleep plays like a movie based on a thrift store specializing in Harlequin novels--French Harlequin novels. It adheres to the music-video director's maxim of maximum images per second, and it casts Gael García Bernal as Stéphane, a useless lug endlessly working on a calendar of calamitous events and pining after his across-hall neighbour Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he is too smitten to confess that his mother is her landlord. His dreams take the form of a one-man variety show, while Gondry revels in scenes where he inflates his hero's hands and has him ride an animated patchwork horse. But The Science of Sleep is more exhausting than illuminating--more a loud masturbation than any kind of intercourse with the audience. The difference between the Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Gondry of The Science of Sleep, it seems obvious to say, is the difference between a film scripted by Charlie Kaufman and one not, though it's more complicated than that in that the Kaufman of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an artist who finally struck a balance between affectation and a much finer connective tissue. Gondry is still just engaged in the twist.
It's hard to see Stéphane and Stéphanie as being more substantive than any of the other dishevelled props Gondry tosses around in his faux-romantic fugue. Caring about their stultifyingly cute misunderstandings, then, requires something of a pointless and Herculean effort. The Science of Sleep is exhausting instead of revelatory, its sentiment grounded by a lethal dosage of quirk that proves that soulless automatons are wondrous only for their elaborate strangeness. If this sounds like the description for a foetal cult film, I'd offer the example of Gondry's feature debut, Human Nature: Armed, as it happens, with Kaufman's first screenplay, it suffers from the same variety of visual arrogance and has, ultimately, located itself primarily as a curiosity--and an irritating one at that. Gondry is in love with his auteur mantle; I wonder if he's unaware that it's tied so snugly to Kaufman's particular genius.
It's tied almost as inextricably as Jet Li's is to the epic historical martial arts spectacle. Thus it comes with some sadness that Li has declared Fearless (a.k.a. Jet Li's Fearless) his final foray into a genre he's done much to define in the modern era--no less because a moment referencing the classic Once Upon a Time in China films (and Li's indelible turn as another mythologized folk hero, Wong Fei Hung) whereby Li holds an umbrella during a fight reminds us that although Li's retained most of his physical skills, Fearless is a pretty pale imitation of former glories. The tale of Huo Yuan Jia, a legendary martial arts master who defended China's dignity for a brief period of time against the indignities ladled upon it by the whole of the colonial world, Fearless is essentially a series of matches against racial bogeymen (American behemoths, British fencing fops) separated by a long, meditative middle section in which Huo recognizes the error of his vengeance-mongering ways and returns to kick ass in the name of Zen. The message is one from Li, who's said he's turning his back on wushu flicks over a repugnance at the revenge element that suffuses the genre with a red light. It's also clearly a message for our time, when so many of the world's ails continue to be carried on the horn of misdirected reprisals and thinly-veiled racial recriminations.
The fight scenes are serviceable, if rendered almost polite by Tony Jaa's new breed of intimately physical violations and further neutered by the plainness of director Ronny Yu's use of CGI and wirework. A scene where a childhood rival should have, by all rights, perished horribly from a head-first plunge off a thirty-foot platform underscores the comic-book aspect of the project, thus allaying Fearless more closely to a travesty like The One than to something intelligent like the superior Li vehicle Unleashed. There's a lot to admire about Li's desire to offer up his own Unforgiven, the swan song to a career spent in bruised flesh and strained joints, yet for as beautiful as it is in its quiet moments (and for as briefly exhilarating as it can be in its occasional martial arts sequences), Fearless is ultimately a picture preaching about the cost of violence that shies away from real, visceral consequence. It's a pretty vessel, a smooth surface over a shallow and empty pond. There are bigger truths in this picture, for sure, but its infatuation with the vagaries of its own shell leaves behind something essential and profound in the translation. Originally published: September 27, 2006.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.