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Drifting in dreamland

In `The Science Of Sleep,' Michel Gondry Steps From `eternal Sunshine' Into A Handmade Fantasy World Where Reality Is Just A State Of Mind.

September 10, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

RATHER than using the sophisticated computer wizardry available today, filmmaker Michel Gondry prefers to call upon an old-fashioned array of camera tricks and animation techniques to create beguiling movies full of wide-eyed wonder laced with a touch of European sadness.

His latest film, "The Science of Sleep," even more than the rhapsodic "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," for which he shared a best original screenplay Oscar, takes the viewer on a journey into an idiosyncratic world made of yarn and whimsy, cardboard and melancholy.

This time, Gondry, whose visual style has marked the music videos of such artists as the White Stripes and Bjork, wrote the film alone, drawing from bits and pieces of his personal history -- the bad jobs he once held, the oddball devices he once created. Stephane (the charmingly feckless Gael Garcia Bernal) becomes increasingly obsessed with his new neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), even as his vivid dream life becomes ever more real to him, spilling into his interactions with her and with his mind-numbing job at a calendar company.

The film opens inside Stephane's head, more specifically, inside his conception of his mind. Imagining himself as a makeshift television host, he oversees his life with cameras made from cardboard boxes, a shower curtain backdrop and window shades for eyelids. From there, the film pirouettes between Stephane's dreary workaday life and his vibrant dream reality, where he can fly free from responsibility.

"I think whenever you are in Stephane's head you should have the feeling he constructed this universe," Gondry said recently by phone in his high, sing-song voice. "I was not aware of it when I started, but as I went along, I realized it totally made sense to have this handmade quality going on in his head."

To realize his vision for such a personal film, which opens Friday, the French-born Gondry actually turned to others. Lauri Faggioni, who had worked with Gondry in the past, was enlisted to create any number of things that spring to wondrous life in Stephane's dreams through stop-motion animation -- shoes that tie themselves, a boat that's filled with twig trees, a typewriter that becomes a monster, a toy horse that gallops across the room

Baptiste Ibar was recruited to paint the portraits for Stephane's idea for a calendar in which each month depicts a major disaster -- a doomed airliner one month, an earthquake the next.

Faggioni first worked with Gondry when she was simultaneously asked by a costume designer to create a suit that looked like excrement to be worn by the comedian David Cross for one of Gondry's short films, and by the director himself when he wanted to animate the small vintage-looking cloth birds she was making at the time.

Subsequently, Faggioni worked with Gondry in a number of different capacities, including set design and choreography. It is an example of a way of working that Gondry says he picked up from singer Bjork, collaborating with people who may lack for experience but make up for it with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.

"I like working with someone who is starting, because you feel everything is possible," Gondry said. "It's a great energy and it's by definition artistic because you can't predict what it's going to be. It's the opposite of a vicious circle, it's a positive circle. You get as much creativity as craft."

That outsider creativity can be key because Gondry isn't always direct about what he's looking for. "He starts to explain it, and he gets excited and it's hard to follow his train of thought," Faggioni said, speaking by phone from her workshop in New York. "But you get the gist of what he wants. He's not necessarily good at articulating himself, unless it's what he doesn't want. He knows what he doesn't want.

"He still thinks about things in terms of how a kid would tackle a project. It's from an excited place and there's not any real restrictions. He doesn't think in terms of restrictions."

For Ibar, "The Science of Sleep" was a first-time collaboration. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who has been selling his paintings privately, Ibar was brought to Gondry's attention when the artist's sister was tutoring the filmmaker's son.

Again, the collaboration began with a few discussions, as Gondry presented Ibar with some basic ideas -- which disasters to depict, a few visual cues -- and sent the painter on his way. Ibar came back with a series of sketches and then created the 12 paintings within the span of about a month.

Ibar had been familiar with Gondry's work and found they had a mutual attraction to the childlike, slightly-off qualities that come through in the "disastrology" paintings. "He wanted a black humor, like a kid trying to do a painting of something really dramatic because the proportions are off and things are drawn funny," Ibar said. "But at the same time, it's almost more real than trying to capture it.

"That's the attraction to a naive feeling, the handmade aspect that Michel is really after. It's what makes his work so moving."

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