Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Case Study: 'La Science des Rêves'

This entry actually relates specifically to my Research Methods module, but given that Gondry is a pretty big influence on me and that the film in question is part-animation, I figured there'd be no harm in including this as an additional case study.

The trickiest thing about looking at a movie by a director (or any piece of art, by any type of artist) one admires is to see it in its own right, disregarding all previous work. This is especially difficult when reviewing Michel Gondry's recent film 'La Science des Rêves' ('The Science of Sleep') as it is visually reminiscent of almost every project he's previously put his hand to. As a consequence, comparisons inevitably shape this review. The film, which did not receive wide distribution (bless the Watershed), is Gondry's first written feature, although he's already been firmly established as a director for a number of years now. Through a myriad of dream sequences, hallucinations and shared fantasies it tells the story of Stéphane, arriving in France from Mexico to take up his dream occupation only to discover that he has been woefully misinformed about the nature of the work. While dealing with his disillusionment he forges two friendships, one with his unabashedly sex-obsessed work colleague Guy, the other with his neighbour Stephanie, with whom he shares a creative bond. When his initial romantic infatuation shifts from a casual interest in her friend Zoe to Stephanie herself, his propensity to fantasise grows exponentially to the point at which it starts to encroach on his waking life.
In many ways this film retreads a lot of familiar visual ideas - in fact, at times it seems to directly reference numerous prior works, most of which being music videos, Gondry's (like many modern film-makers) primary medium before moving onto feature films. A lot of technical devices and shortcuts will be familiar to Gondry enthusiasts - the crude construction of sets (Stéphane's mindscape is primarily made from cardboard) and projected backdrops especially.At one point Stéphane wakes to find his feet in a freezer, presumably dragged into his room somnambulatorily to synthethise arctic terrain, a scenario that recalls Gondry's kaleadoscopic video for the Chemical Brothers' 'Let Forever Be', in which a young woman flits between conscious and unconscious states, finding elements of dreams bleeding into real life.
Another sequence in which Stéphane's dream persona battles his co-workers with oversized, cartoonish hands harkens back to the Gondry directed music video for 'Everlong' (Foo Fighters), in which the band's singer Dave Grohl does likewise to save his drummer Taylor Hawkins, in drag as a damsel-in-distress. This cinematic convention of the lady in peril was also worked into 'Eternal Sunshine...', seeing Jim Carrey's uncharacteristically-subdued lead Joel desperately try to preserve the memory of his former girlfriend by dragging her through various unlikely recesses of his brain. In 'Les Sciences...' the premise is adapted somewhat, but the splitting of the prospective love interest into two separate characters - one real and flawed, in a sense unremarkable, the other a dually romanticised and idealised figment of the protagonist's imagination - remains. When a lovesick Stéphane sees Stephanie apparantly succumbing to the charms of another man, her fictionalised doppelganger apologises profusely from within his brain. Similarly, in 'Eternal Sunshine...' Joel imagines the fading memory of his former lover Clementine apologising for emasculating him early on in their relationship, an atonement she never proffered in real life. This device is perhaps the most relatable element of two decidedly-abstract love stories, that our minds, when afflicted by love, will deify those we're attracted to, and the profound disillusionment that comes with the eventual realisation that they are only human.
When he isn't referencing himself, Gondry draws upon the trademarks of a handful that have come before. The minimal yet decidedly eerie dreamscapes of David Lynch are a definite presence, as well as the hallucinatory miscreations of David Cronenberg's earlier work, Gondry's distinctive take on such approaches being to present them in a more lighthearted, overtly 'daft' context. An early dream sequence, brought on by Stéphane's fascination with a malfunctioning electric shaver moving itself across the floor, sees the device mutated into a mechanical arachnid whose function is reversed, causing it's victim's facial hair to rapidly grow. Perhaps a more direct influence on these sequences, and one which has not been so prevalent until this film, would be the use of pixellation and overall sense of aesthetic of Jan Svankmajer. With the exception of an interesting pixellation experiment with Lego blocks for a White Stripes music video, Gondry is not best known for animation. In 'Les Sciences...' however it is a consistent theme, reminiscent of Svankmajer's short films and in particular his abstract take on 'Alice In Wonderland', the more succintly-titled 'Alice'. The animated characters that, visually, hover between being ridiculous and being unnerving, as well as the use of delapidated, derelict house interiors as set-pieces are shared traits of both films. It is also worth pondering whether or not Gondry's experience of working with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on 'Eternal Sunshine...' was in itself a direct influence on the screenplay. In many respects both films are thematically similar - an awkward (bordering on irritating) but identifiable and sympathetic lead, an unlikely love-interest ...However, while the sting in 'Eternal Sunshine...''s tail seemed to be that the portrayed couple are doomed to go in a loop, repeating the same mistakes yet being drawn to one another time and time again, the decidely less mythic premise in 'La Sciences...' is that the couple are simply doomed before they can begin, affections being entirely one-sided and unreciprocated. For what is seemingly a small difference in detail, this element makes the film an altogether different type of love story, one which is perhaps exclusive to Gondry as a screenwriter as 'Eternal Sunshine...' was to Kaufman. While being, in technical terms, amusing and enjoyable (if not especially brilliant or innovative), the story on which the eye-candy is predicated has genuine soul. Essentially it's a study of how love in a real, unromanticised sense can be a stifling, obtrusive handicap that marrs one's rationale. In this instance, it engulfs the lead to the point where he is both unable to even function in a work environment and, more tragically, attempt the preservation of what could potentially be a meaningful friendship with the woman he cannot have. It's not a topic that lends itself to contemporary cinema well, especially not when married with such an atypical narrative (the story doesn't progress so much as loop in gradually increasing circles) and visual style, and as such its demographic is narrowed to admirers of independent film and Gondry fans. As both, I personally found much to enjoy in this film, but it's clear from observing the critical and public reaction to it that its mass appeal is notably limited.