A mental traveler, Stephane (Bernal) spends his nights dreaming himself the host of a one-man television show, Stephane TV. The set is a sort of shag-rugged, eggbox-baffled padded cell. Playing to a cardboard camera, Stephane supplies his own musical accompaniment, interviews guests (mainly his mother), and invites the viewing audience to watch him "mixing up" his visions in a fake kitchen. In the waking life that he processes each night on his show, Stephane has returned from Mexico, where he lived with his late father, to the family apartment in Paris. This splendidly regressive setting is another version of the dream studio Stephane sleeping on a tiny bed surrounded by boyhood knickknacks and Rube Goldberg gadgets.
Stephane's mother (Miou-Miou), who lives with a sour stage magician, gets her son a job at a print shop. The boss is not impressed with Stephane's idea for a calendar in which each month is identified with a celebrated disaster. But like every other place where Gondry's over-imaginative hero finds himself, it's staffed with weirdos and rich with material to be hallucinated on his show. Stephane's life becomes further complicated when Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) moves in across the hall. Stephane is not exactly attracted to her. She's thin, with delicate, bony features and impossibly prickly. But the absence of attraction is no barrier to obsession.
Stephane and Stephanie have more in common than their complementary names. Both are childish, albeit in differing ways, and involved in manufacturing and collecting little fetishes. They are, in the deepest sense, soul mates as Stephanie belatedly realizes after Stephane reconfigures her prized toy horse for actual movement. Stephane is an artist who (like Gondry) works from household materials. The frantic idyll, once the couple begins collaborating, suggests a kindergarten crafts project run amok. The rest is more like Romper Room Resnais or a cross between David Cronenberg's Spider and Pee-wee's Playhouse.
Objects have a life of their own. (One morning Stephane wakes up with his feet in the refrigerator.) Indeed, The Science of Sleep is a magpie's heap the clutter of wacky non sequiturs littered with throwaway gags and festooned with Freudian slips. Gondry's off-kilter visuals and hieroglyphic mise-en-scène are underscored by the protagonists' accented English individual words are made strange. Gondry is a far sunnier surrealist than Jan Svankmajer, but The Science of Sleep is not all that different from the season's other exercise in object animation, the Czech maestro's Lunacy: In each, the animated world mirrors the protagonist's tumultuous inner life.
Cross-cutting between Stephane's dreams and reality, reprising material in a variety of different contexts, The Science of Sleep is an extraordinarily playful movie. The mood is borderline fey. But no less than its hero, the movie is too strange and even infantile to be whimsical. Stephane fantasizes adult success and suffers from unrequited love. His loneliness is everywhere apparent: "I wish I could talk with my dad," he says mournfully. The final fantasy of Stephane and Stephanie riding off together on what might be Gumby's horse across a crumpled cellophane sea is less apt to warm your heart than break it.