One of the most imaginative directors working in film today, Michel Gondry's reputation was made long before he made his first feature, Human Nature
. The French-born drummer (he played with the band Oui-Oui
) turned filmmaker (his first productions were Oui-Oui videos) has directed award-winning commercials for Gap, Nike, Coca Cola, Adidas, Polaroid, Levi and others, and dozens of the most inventive music videos ever made, including memorable videos for The Chemical Brothers
and numerous collaborations with The White Stripes
(available on the music video anthology The Work of Michel Gondry
Gondry won an Academy Award for the screenplay for his amazing second feature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, a melancholy science-fiction fantasy co-written with Charlie Kaufman
, and he carries many of that film's concerns into The Science of Sleep
. Once again, he uses whimsy and fantasy to explore prickly emotions and uncomfortable feelings and the sometimes painful divide between our dreams and our lives, but this script is all Gondry's, right down to the inspiration - his own life.
There's a childlike sweetness and honesty in Stéphane, the aspiring illustrator (and Gondry stand-in) played by Gael García Bernal
who reimagines his world through the TV show of the mind. It's both prologue to his freewheeling dreams and madcap escape from reality, which he hosts and directs from a cardboard and cellophane set that lies just behind his eyes. The flip side to his creative imagination and flights of fancy, however, is an emotional immaturity that cripples any adult connection to his neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg
), a creative young woman who seems attuned to Stéphane's childlike engagement with a world of raw materials just waiting to be turned into art. In the face of a mind-killing job and an unrequited love, his fantasy becomes pure escape that soaks through to both his dreams and his waking world.
Nine months after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Gondry's French-language production gets its American theatrical release. I talked to Gondry in June, the day before The Science of Sleep
closed the Seattle International Film Festival on a note of imaginative spirit and emotional pain. He may be over 40, but even in person he has the playfulness of a child, which inspired my first question...
The documentary on the music video anthology The Work of Michel Gondry is called 'I've Been Twelve Forever.' Do you think of yourself that way as an artist, tapping into a pre-adult creativity?
Well, I remember trying to figure out what the difference would be between being young and adult and then older, and the thinking is the same. There are some differences but you feel [like] the same person. So that's why. This title came in a simple way, because my girlfriend at the time noted that every time I would refer to a memory of the past, I would say, "I must have been twelve." It's because, when I was twelve, I was moving to the high school and it was a World Cup, 1974, and so I have a tendency to remember more and to associate more memories that have a vague attachment of time into this period, which is more clear to me. That's why.
That title also seems to describe Stéphane, the main character of The Science of Sleep. He seems to be very much trapped in his own perpetual childhood. He doesn't seem to have grown out of his adolescence, at least emotionally.
Yeah, the thing about falling in love, it's not necessarily a mature love. Like the way you love your children is mature love. When you fall in love in an uncontrollable way, it's generally the same type of love that you feel when you are twelve. So, yeah, in this regard it's not really very mature.
In other ways too. He has a tendency, when he gets excited, to act without thinking. Breaking into Stéphanie's apartment seems like a funny idea at the time, but when she discovers he's been inside, he realizes that it may not have been such a good idea.
Yes, it's something that could feel very romantic on your side and could feel very creepy on the other side. I remember doing that, breaking into the apartment of my girlfriend, just to give her a sign that I was there, and she was pretty upset. I just tried to imagine if it was this girl who would break into my place. I don't know, it's different for girl than for a guy. I guess I would find it a little... you would feel unsafe.
There's a certain safety zone and someone coming through the window of your apartment uninvited crosses that line.
But his objective is good and after she realizes what it is, she totally forgives him. But at first, it's true, and I think that she reminds him that things happen in the real world.
According to your bio, parts of the story are autobiographical, or at least autobiographically inspired. You worked at a calendar company, which you didn't like, and you shot the film in the same building you once lived in during that time.
When I wrote the story, I had those places in mind. It was a very typical flat from this district of Paris, 18th Arrondissement near Montmartre. They are very small rooms and are all very similar. We tried to find two apartments next to each other with a balcony that's in common, but then we went back to the place where I lived. Lucky enough, we found two apartments, actually four apartments, [two of] which we used for the production office and all the equipment. But it's true, I thought it would be weird to watch, but now the story takes over, the character takes over. When I watch the movie, I think, "Oh, that's where I used to live," but it doesn't mean more than that. What's interesting is that, all the locations, I know them, so I didn't try to recreate anything, it's just the way it is. It's very objective, at least the reality is objective.
How is Stéphane different from you in the way that he deals with the world?
I think it's a little excessive, what he does. It's pretty close because I was excessive as well, but I would not go to the point to hurt myself. I would imagine I would hurt myself to get attention, but I would never do it. It's a combination of different stages of my life. Like working at the calendar company happened to me 25 years ago, or the story with this happened to me three years ago, so it's a mixed... It's pretty much me, only obviously, it's not very objective. I wouldn't say "caricature" but it's a little excessive.
Stéphane has a problem being a creative artist because he isn't able to express his ideas to other people in any way that they can understand. Although he did get his calendar made.
Yes, eventually he got it out.
Did you have an easier time, at that age, of expressing your artistic ideas?
No! I actually failed. I proposed my paintings - I had done paintings for a calendar, and my proposal got rejected. It takes time before the system accepts you. Although I think what's interesting is, by the time his calendar is accepted, which is his main preoccupation at the beginning of the story, it doesn't mean anything to him anymore, because what matters to him is his possible relationship with Stéphanie, which is not happening. So he cannot even be satisfied by his success.
In so many movies, the idea of the savant, the mad creative artist unencumbered by social restrictions, is idealized. You don't do that. You show when he's sweet, yet at the same time you show the other side: he's irresponsible, he doesn't show up at his job for days, and he uses his fantasies to escape and not deal with things when he doesn't like how things are going in his real life.
Well, he's not a Hollywood character, that's for sure. It's an observation that I'm not sure how I can answer. It's hard for me to define how a creative person or inventive person should behave. Sometimes you feel that they should be excused for their irrational behavior because they deal with the irrational and it's not necessarily easy. In my personal case, I make a living with irrationality and I take care of people with it. So on one hand, I could be a little bit of an unpredictable person not necessarily easy to deal with, but on the other hand, I'm a good provider. I never lived on anybody's money, not even my parents. As soon as I was out of school, I worked and I paid my rent, so I don't see the artist as somebody that should be spoiled, should be taken care of. Stéphane is taken care of by his girlfriend, but he's still someone who functions in his professional life. It's just sometimes on an emotional level he's a little dysfunctional.