A Confusing Imaginary Life and a Tense Police Drama

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Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane Miroux in The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry's latest film.

This is the tale of two modestly scaled, seriously intended French films.

One of them, The Science of Sleep, stars a major-minor international star — the very attractive Gael Garcia Bernal — and is directed by the annoyingly twee Michel Gondry, who somehow won a screenwriting Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005, not to mention the hearts of audiences who forgave his vertiginous descents into near-terminal cuteness because the movie's imagery has a certain freshness to it.

The other is called Le Petit Lieutenant. It stars Nathalie Baye, who has been an ornament of the French cinema since the 1970s, but is no one's idea of an international hottie. It is directed and co-written by a guy you've never heard of, Xavier Beauvois, and it is, at least superficially, a policier of the kind the French are particularly good at — a lot of cops in leather jackets, cigarettes dangling from their lips, making weary wisecracks as they go about their grim and often tedious business.

Science was a Sundance success, was acquired by the classics division of a major studio and already the New York Times Magazine has prostrated itself at Gondry's feet in an adoring profile with, one is certain, all sorts of sober critical exegesis about to follow it in the major markets. Lieutenant, meanwhile, was picked up by a fringe distributor, opened in New York to OK notices and is now beginning to make its halting way around the country on what's left of the once-flourishing "art house" circuit.

Guess which one of these movies you ought to break your neck to see?

Hint: It's not the one in which a slacker named Stephane (Bernal) confuses his busy dream life with his languid existence in reality. In his mind's eye he often hosts an imaginary TV show — the cameras and sets are made of cardboard boxes cunningly repurposed — where he does cooking spots in which he makes metaphorical stews out of random thoughts and memories to demonstrate how dreams are made. When he's up and about he's lusting impotently after the girl down the hall (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, adorably enough, has virtually the same name, Stephanie. He makes an imaginary metropolis for her (more abused cardboard), he converts a toy horse into a real one so they can have an idyllic dream ride through the countryside. Their relationship grows increasingly confusing to her, and increasingly irritating to us — or maybe I should say, "to me" since I am implacably resistant to the purely fantastic in movies, not excluding The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say the relationship, between Stephane and Stephanie remains, whether he's awake or asleep, incurably chaste.

I have to admit than when Stephane is operating in the real world, he's rather more entertaining. He has a job as a paste-up technician with a calendar publisher, which rejects his attempts to become an artist (his sample illustrations are dreamy, childlike representations of disasters, natural and man-made). The office is dominated by lusty, corner-cutting Guy (Alain Chabat) who besides cracking bad, sexually charged jokes attempts to woo Stephane to the dark side: girls, booze, mild working-world rebelliousness. These passage are not wildly inventive, but at least they return us to that place where movies function most comfortably, a naturalistic world that is, of course, intensified by dialogue and plotting that stretches and enlivens reality while still keeping in touch with it.

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