Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Michel Gondry, 43, is a boy genius. Give him a pile of Legos and he might make an animated video of the White Stripes out of them. Give him some egg cartons, boxes, and a shower curtain and perhaps he'll construct an imaginary TV studio, where the programming consists entirely of the dreamer's dreams. Give him some cardboard tubes, and he can build an entire miniature city, complete with skyscrapers, factories and public transportation.
Gondry, the director of numerous music videos and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," creates those last two things in "The Science of Sleep," the hand-crafted fantasy he's written and directed about a little boy in the body of a small young man who confuses waking, sleeping and dreaming.
Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), a shy would-be graphic artist, returns to his mother's apartment after his father's death and sleeps in a child's cradle-bed, between colorful automobile-print sheets, in a room overflowing with toys and inventions.
Stephane develops a fitful crush on his across-the-hall neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), in part because he imagines her as his ideal counterpart. After all, her door is opposite his, and she likes to make things with her hands, too, and they practically share the same name, so love must be inevitable. Alas, there's no chemistry at all between Stephane and Stephanie, and no good explanation for why there should be.
Stephane takes a lousy, uncreative job pasting together the boring parts of calendars at a small, technologically backward printing company, where an older co-worker, Guy (Alain Chabat), personifies Stephane's juvenile view of adulthood and adult sexuality. Guy is a bully, a gauche child-man obsessed with sex in ways that frighten and repulse Stephane, who sees himself as innocent and romantic.
And perhaps his objectification and infantilization of himself and Stephanie is romantic, in the solipsistic sense (the whole movie takes place in Stephane's head, anyway), but it's also kind of creepy and unsatisfying -- in the way that an insecure 12-year-old (who'd probably rather be playing with his toys) in the throes of an ambivalent infatuation with a girl he sees only as an extension of himself can be. Stephane eventually winds up in Stephanie's bed (a loft/bunk bed known as the mezzanine -- located between infancy and adulthood), but they never share a mattress at the same time.
"The Science of Sleep" is bursting with ingenious handmade retro-toys and gadgets (like a time machine, using an old Polaroid flash attachment, that skips only one second into the past or the future) and cleverly animated miniatures, all low-tech creations made from common recycled household items, like an ocean of cellophane or a thought-transmission device made from bicycle helmets and wire. Gondry fans will recognize some of the movie's motifs and images from his music videos, shorts and commercials, like the enormous clumsy hands Stephane grows (like Dave Grohl in the Foo Fighters' video for "Everlong").
Gondry appears to have designed "The Science of Sleep" as an elaboration on a short film, "La Lettre" ("The Letter"), which available on his DVD collection. In it, a real boy (10? 12?) believes he is in love with a girl, while his older brother pressures him to French kiss her. It works better with an actual child.
Although the diminutive (5-foot-6-inch) Bernal emanates an infectiously playful and energetic charisma, there comes a point when you just want to slap him with a big hand for being such a petulant baby. There's definitely something unheathly, even pathological, behind Stephane's notion of this asexual/heterosexual "relationship." The boy is charming, but not quite as charming as Gondry thinks he is.