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Liminal Space in The Science of Sleep

April 28, 2008

When The Science of Sleep came out in theaters I was teaching a Surrealism class to a group of about thirty high school students at a public school as part of my film program. One of the hardest things to teach students at that age is content. They were great with technique, craft, and formalism, but the hardest thing was to get them to understand what their work was or could be about. This class was probably one of the most successful tools I had for helping students to understand this leap, and in retrospect it helped me with my understanding of the film The Science of Sleep.

With Surrealism the students were drawn to the self-consciously weird images and subject matter and could mine their dreams and sense of the absurd for content. The class consisted of a lot of writing, both automatic and close reading of the images we screened every day, response work, short film projects they executed in groups, and extensive journaling. We screened hours of Bunuel, Cocteau, Dali, and Man Ray. Then we focused on contemporary work that was influenced by Surrealist work like the Twin Peaks series, excerpts from Matthew Barney, and Michel Gondry’s music videos. My goal was to provide the students with imagery that pushed and challenged them, while giving a cultural foundation that would benefit them in future work. I’ve been thinking a lot about my Teaching Practicum lately, so I’ve been going back to these experiences and exploring how they fit with what I’ve been reading and exploring in my writing.

So when I first screened The Science of Sleep, it was with an eye towards presenting it to the Surrealism class, but the film contained too much sexual content and nudity, something more present as metaphor in the other work we explored. In addition my initial response to the film was: this is a series of sketches. It was visually dynamic and beautiful, but it felt like Gondry had taken many of the kernels he explored in his visually inventive music videos and recast them as a feature length. The magically transforming novel in Bjork’s video Batchelorette had grown into Stéphane’s dream novel in The Science of Sleep. In all of Gondry’s work the execution of dream gadgets and low-tech technology is amazing. He invents with some opposable thought/thumb, manipulating ideas into physical representations of larger concepts. He’s tactile and hands on while being entirely of the brain and imagination at the same time. Perhaps that’s why I was a little disappointed when first screening it.

I liked the film, but was probably viewing it too closely for its relevance with this particular class, and while enjoying it, essentially wrote it off as a pretty exercise. Then last night I screened the film again. Everything that seemed so dismissible about the film the first time now appeared lively, charming, and engaged. There are some interesting experiments (not just technological) going on there.

One of the most exciting elements set up by Gondry is the exploration of the liminal. From the beginning Stéphane occupies an in-between space, he’s Mexican but transported back to Paris to stay with his widowed mother. He is floating between two worlds and frames of reference. On top of that he inhabits a space he no longer fits into, inserted into his childhood room and life, but now as an adult. The use of language highlights this liminality in an interesting way. The film shifts seamlessly between French, Spanish, and English (normally a tedious exercise), but here it’s used to show that nobody is ever getting all of what is being said. They are each having to inhabit some other space in order to communicate. The languages come together to create a new hybrid space. When Stéphane’s French isn’t good enough at work, he lapses into English. When Stéphanie torments Stéphane with her friend Zoe, they veer into mischievously quick rambling French. Language is the liminal space that connects the interior room of each individual’s mind. To navigate these shared spaces of ideas, each character must navigate a sort of cartography of where one person begins and another one ends, and in this film the use of language highlights this process.

Underscoring this idea of inhabiting liminal space is the film’s actively bleeding overlap of dream-life with the everyday. While Stéphane dreams, the phone rings in the waking world, and through it his sleeping self communicates with his mother in the outside world as the two spheres bleed into one another. This merging of realities is most pronounced in scenes where in the dream Stéphane exits through a door and finds himself navigating waking reality, like in the scene where he ends up in the hallway as Stéphanie’s piano is being moved. Another example of this is when Stéphanie has a dream about a turtle and a praying mantis fighting, and wakes up to realize that the noise is actually Stéphane slipping a note from under her door. Stéphanie watches through the peephole as Stéphane, naked in the hallway, tries to take back the note he wrote and slipped under the door while still dreaming. Stéphanie reads the note before allowing Stéphane to retrieve it, but the note is gibberish. It doesn’t make sense outside of the land of dreaming. The note, like the shifts between the different languages spoken, inhabits the in-between space found between Stéphane’s dreams and the mundane world, taken out of their natural environment they are fish stranded on a shore.

As Stéphane says about dreams as the film begins:

Tonight, I’ll show you how dreams are prepared. People think it’s a very simple and easy process but it’s a bit more complicated than that. As you can see, a very delicate combination of complex ingredients is the key. First, we put in some random thoughts. And then, we add a little bit of reminiscences of the day… mixed with some memories from the past. [adds two bunches of pasta] That’s for two people. Love, friendships, relationships… and all those “ships”, together with songs you heard during the day, things you saw, and also, uh… personal… Okay, I think it’s one.

All these elements come together to make up a new hybrid thing, there’s a doubling triggered by language and images (almost a psychological pun), but taken out of the shared liminal space it becomes stranded. The breakdown in Stéphane and Stéphanie’s relationship becomes more pronounced when their communication grows less permeable and fluid in this space, and they slip into their individual experiences of reality. It’s the willingness to sail on all those “ships” (friendships and relationships) that allows the individual to stay buoyant while traversing this shared liminal space they create together. With this, the final shot of the movie consist of an animation of Stéphane and Stéphanie adrift in a boat on the cellophane sea of their own making.

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