It’s one of my all-time favorites; one I’ve watched a couple dozen times. Yet I’ve never sat down to write about it.
This film more than most needs an explanation, because everyone I share it with finds it a bit too obscure. So let this veteran talk you through it a bit and maybe when you watch it (again?) you’ll find it makes a bit more sense. Sometimes all we need is for someone to connect the dots, right? Fair enough, because Michael Gondry doesn’t really put them so close together in this one.
At the heart of this story is the fact that Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is regularly confusing his dream for waking life. We are often invited into this confusion as well: the movie kicks off with one of many dream sequences, all of which are only set off by the use of brown, cardboard props, abstract scenarios and various degrees of film speed manipulation.
As we experience this, we too get a sense of not quite knowing and are one step closer to the vulnerable position of someone who could live this way, suspended between a dream and reality. We also get a chance to take a unique angle on imagination and how it influences reality, for it truly is a kind of wizard of oz behind both our dreams and real life.
The first scene of the movie has us in a stage made of a brown cardboard counter and backdrop, a screen and a blue curtain. Stephane is hosting a program wherein he’s introducing us to how dreams are made, what goes into them.
Enter the grey reality that Stephane is moving to France to be with his mother, who has persuaded him there with the promise of a job as an artist. He finds out abruptly that she has fixed him up as a glorified calendar editor. Like a turtle recoiling in to a shell, he is further alienated from reality and only propelled further into his dream world by a rusty relationship with the French language.
His office mates look past this and prove highly entertaining forces in his life however, most notably Guy (Alain Chabat). Typically French, they pull no punches in their banter and whiplash-worthy body language. Guy is an incorrigible womanizer who is constantly trying to get Stephane to adopt his take on living in the moment and basically fu^% anything that moves. Stephane’s soft and somewhat confused psyche rebels against Guy yet still allows his input and friendship, as somehow, and strangely enough, it anchors him in reality more than anything else can … as the audience, we find scenes with Guy among the most grounding and entertaining … perfect intermissions dotting the portrayal of Stephane’s abstract, shifting world.
Stephane lives with his mother and she is the landlord of a building where two women live on the other side of his bedroom wall. Zoe (Emma de Caunes) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsburg) make their appearance as they direct a struggling crew to move a piano upstairs into their apartment. Stephane lends a hand and gets it crushed. They offer him hospitality and introductions near the piano. Zoe is notably fashionable while Staphanie dons long, stringy locks and an understated grey sweater. Stephane prefers Zoe. He has overheard that they find their landlord a bitch so he pretends for a good part of the film that he lives elsewhere.
Upon hearing Stephane’s description of meeting the ladies next door, Guy immediately interjects his understanding of “liking the pretty one when the ugly one likes you.” We are bewildered by his ability to write a situation off to this and wonder if Stephane does, too. He does take a liking to the notion of going for Zoe, and yet Guy shows a bit of heart to suggest he not play around with Stephanie.
Over the course of some scenes we realize that Stephane and Stephanie have much more in common. While Stephanie is a wellspring of creativity, understanding and good conversation, Zoe is more like a pretty flower without the mother plant. There is nothing alive between Stephane and Zoe so that never even starts. Guy and Zoe, however, do mingle in moments of subtle hilarity. Stephane finds himself confused … he writes letters in his sleep, runs across the hall naked and slips them under their doorway, unwittingly revealing that he is their neighbor/landlord’s son.
All the while, dream sequences mix with real negotiations at the office as Stephane, like any newly-arrived expat, faces a kaleidoscope of adjustment and disillusionment. His proposal of an artistic ‘disasterology’ calendar series is met by Guy’s muffled laughter and his bosse’s sincere confusion. His dreams reflect frustration, a need to show dominance and overtake the business with his paintings of plane crashes and natural disasters.
His distorted dreamscapes foretell the reality of his mother’s dating life, the unearthing of suppressed feelings about his deceased father and the related tender ‘trust-dance’ interactions with Stephanie. But his real interactions with life, and with her, are choppy at best. He finds himself climbing across windowsills to break into their apartment and is caught. Stephanie kicks him out. It is at about this time that we realize he is emotionally investing in her.
In a particular scene that showcases his waking confusion and quixotic behavior, he rushes into the shared space between their doorways and asks Stephanie to marry him. Stephanie explains that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that she is pretty sure he prefers Zoe. Stephane walks down the stairs, pouting. Their simple argument illuminates a vulnerability that lives in all of us as we try to find courage to express love for someone else in the face of uncertain odds.
Eventually, Stephane’s art is accepted for a calendar series and there happens a party to mark the release. Everyone is there and yet Stephanie won’t respond to Stephane in a way that inspires his security. She in fact flirts with another man and sends Stephane into a panik, which he tries to stave by putting his open mouth under the beer tap. He passes out and is carried home.
At his bedside, Stephanie whispers the reasons he faces such setbacks between them. It’s a reason we don’t have to be so confused to understand. The fears and the ghosts born from juxtaposing dreaming and waking life could be just as well all in our waking imagination.
He continues to push her away until the last moments of the movie, but his actions betray him and he cannot bring himself to leave her apartment. Instead, he climbs up to her loft bed and hides. The end of the movie sees her join him as they drift into a dream sequence featuring a grey horse and cellophane sea that has been a work in progress throughout the film.
The love story in this, while abstract and somewhat messy, is the most realistic portrayal of how two people get together. We all have a resume of things we have been through and are working on. Stephane doesn’t seem to have the option of covering this up, at all. And yet, the match is made.