Lying Awake with Michel Gondry

Text by Andrew Rodgers
Photograph by Ye Rin Mok

Known for crafting beautifully stylistic music videos for the likes of Björk, the Chemical Brothers and the Foo Fighters, as well as for a number of award-winning commercials and the incredibly well-received feature Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, French-born director Michel Gondry has made a name for himself as a filmmaker who gravitates toward compelling stories and imaginative visuals. In Eternal Sunshine, for instance, the main character undergoes a procedure to erase the memory of his ex-girlfriend while he’s asleep. But as the technicians do their work, the man’s dreams are filled with confusing visions of erased faces, twisted new realities and a tragic loss of important memories – all of which Gondry tells with his unique visual vocabulary.

In his latest film The Science of Sleep, Gondry again employs an arsenal of visual tricks to explore the intersecting parallels of fantasy and reality. This time around, the lead character is a young man named Stéphane (played by Gael García Bernal) whose dreams constantly invade his waking life, frequently imagining himself as the charismatic host of a TV show dedicated to explaining the science of sleep. Held in a studio crafted from cardboard boxes, egg cartons and a shower curtain, this world weaves a complicated pattern with his reality, often leaving him confused during waking hours.

“I wanted to show how dreaming influences life,” Gondry says. “Emotion is what ties memory together. And since we feel very strong emotions in our dreams, they are recorded in our brain like proper memories and it’s very hard sometimes to differentiate them.”

The story takes flight when Stéphane begins a flirtation with Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an attractive neighbor who shares his love of whimsical handcrafted objects. Stéphane invites her into his world by showing her his inventions, such as a pair of glasses that shows the world in 3-D and a One-Second Time Machine. But while Stéphane’s infatuation blooms, Stéphanie’s interest wanes as she becomes increasingly confused by his tenuous connection to reality and his childish sulking. Eventually unable to find the way to Stéphanie’s heart while awake, the young man searches for answers in his sleep.

And that’s when the characteristic Gondry visuals develop into full-blown brilliance and subvert all expectations. As the film progresses and the duo’s relationship develops, it becomes clear that all that Stéphane imagines might not be concrete reality. Does he even have a relationship with Stéphanie? Is it all just in his dreams? Or is he some sort of oddball stalker who can’t distinguish real interactions from those set amid the cardboard tubes and cellophane of his dreams? At times, the answers seem equally elusive to the audience – which makes this a remarkably captivating film.

“I always liked movies with dream sequences,” Gondry explains, “and I have always been aware of my dream life. But I think that a lot of movies about dreams are too disconnected from reality. I was trying to come up with a story that would really interweave both worlds.”

The similarities between The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine are sometimes hard to overlook – but that’s not surprising considering how they were developed. Collaborating with quirky screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to finish up Human Nature and then to develop the story of Eternal Sunshine, Gondry began working solo on what later became this project. “Obviously it’s a subject that is very interesting to me – what’s going on in two people’s heads,” Gondry says. “There is a territory that is common in both of them. [But] there are enough differences and it’s a subject that’s vast enough, it can definitely be two movies.”

Far from being a fully formed idea that fell out of the sky into his head, though, Gondry says The Science of Sleep required a lot of time and tinkering to evolve into the finished product. The original concept for the film first came to him shortly after completing a music video for the Foo Fighters where two characters shared the same dream. As he toyed with the project over the years, he began to incorporate some of his own dreams – and that’s when the storyline really began to take shape and grow. Then, as he eventually settled on Bernal and Gainsbourg for the main parts, the film evolved further to fit their personalities and the chemistry between them.

For instance, Gondry struggled to find a believable way to show how Stéphanie would not necessarily be attracted to Stéphane. For this particular problem, Gainsbourg had the solution. “She said, ‘Make him mean. Make him scary.’ And so I pushed [Bernal] to be a little more violent to her. I think at the end of the story you really get why she is not necessarily with him. You don’t know if she would end up with him or not. I think [Bernal and Gainsbourg] were really in tune with the art that was in the film and that’s really important. I feel really lucky that I could have these two actors at the same time. They really are an important part of the film.”

The creation of The Science of Sleep was a very personal and fragile experience for Gondry. In fact, he says, he was only able to finish it because he had very positive people surrounding him who challenged him to do good work at every step. “I don’t think I would have been strong enough to define it [on my own]. I would have had many more doubts. So that was a major challenge – to do it despite all my doubts.”

Struggling with doubts is a difficult thing for all filmmakers to overcome, but particularly for those who experience a box office failure as Gondry did with Human Nature, his first feature out of the gate. An oddball film about a scientist who discovers a feral man in the wild and then attempts to tame him to fit in with modern society, the movie failed to connect with audiences and received mixed reviews from critics. The experience was bitter for Gondry, but he resolved to move forward. “It was very difficult after Human Nature. But I decided to overcome it and learn from it and see where I could go, because it seemed to be something I wanted to keep doing and I didn’t want to give up after one try.”

Not wanting to miss an opportunity to improve on his skills and learn from possible mistakes, Gondry wrote down what was bothering him about the film, including the negative reviews, and noted what he thought was true and what he thought he could change. “It’s like when you go into depression and try to figure out things in your head. I was trying to do that with my film and the way I was working. And I came up with solutions. Each time I had a problem I could identify, I wrote a solution next to it or a different possibility on how to approach my next feature. And I actually came out stronger for it.”

Next up for Gondry is Be Kind Rewind starring Jack Black. The film, which is scheduled to begin shooting this September, promises to be another surreal glimpse into Gondry’s imagination. “It’s about two guys who work in a video store and they erase all the tapes by mistake and then decide to reshoot the films themselves.”
By all accounts, Gondry seems to have hit his stride: past failures are behind him, critics are responding well to his new work, and he’s grown more confident with each feature he makes.

You can’t define who you are as a filmmaker, he says, until after you’ve done more than just one or two movies. But “when you’ve done five or six, you start to relax. And then it’s okay. No matter what they do, you find your own voice.”


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