The Double Feature: Big Fish and The Science of Sleep
The internal lives we lead, the ones fleshed out with invented adventures, dreams and fantasies have a way of revealing more about us than the mundane actions of our real lives ever could. Filmmakers understand this better than most simply because they are spinners of fanciful fictions by trade. This is doubly true of Tim Burton and Michel Gondry, two of the most imaginative and original voices working in film today. Both directors favor using childlike, fairy tale imagery to convey adult concepts and themes, giving their films a style and sensibility that is all their own.
For those reasons, the works of Gondry and Burton are a natural fit for a double feature, and none more so than their respective meditations on the effects a fertile imagination can have not only on the people who wield them, but the people they surround themselves with as well.
Despite its whimsical style and eye-popping visuals, Big Fish is a simple story once you peel away the layers of fiction woven by the film’s narrator, Edward Bloom (played by two great actors: Albert Finney in the present and Ewan McGregor in the past). Edward is dying when the film begins and his estranged and perpetually exasperated son Will (Billy Crudup) comes home with his pregnant wife in tow to see his father one last time. The origins of the rift between Will and Edward trace back to Edward’s constant tall tales about his past exploits. Will’s father has created his own myth replete with a witch who foretold his death, a stint spent working at a circus that was ran by a werewolf and a gigantic, uncatchable fish that he tried to catch on the day of Will’s birth. They are the kind of stories that would charm a child, but as an adult Will is sick of hearing nothing but half-truths.
It sounds trite to say so, but Big Fish is a magical film. The majority of it takes place in the past that Edward has spun into something full of wonder and adventure, and his tall tales sweep you away. It’s also a film that is unafraid of embracing its romanticism, whether it be in the form of Edward declaring his love for his future wife surrounded by daffodils or in the sweet melancholy of Edward leaving behind the town of Spectre because he hasn’t satisfied his wanderlust yet.
Big Fish is pure Tim Burton from start to finish, capable of capturing both the innocence inherent in Edward’s compulsive storytelling and his need to impart to his son one final lesson: that in the end we have nothing to leave behind but our stories.
Michel Gondry earned plenty of accolades for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but his next experiment in surrealism was more of a charming cult oddity. It’s not surprising as The Science of Sleep, despite all of its beautiful dreamscapes and flights of fancy, is a much harder–but not impossible–film to love thanks to its protagonist.
Stéphane, played by the always terrific Gael Garcia Bernal, is an adult in name only. He is a grown man who lives in dreams whether he is awake or asleep. He’s artistic and inventive, always building things like the one-second time machine that allows the user to travel either one second into the future or the past. His innocence is endearing in the beginning, but as the film goes along it develops an unsettling edge of darkness. Stéphane becomes enamored with his neighbor Stéphanie and their interactions vacillate between sweet and disturbing as it becomes clear that Stéphane has no idea how to function in reality.
Their relationship is largely built around play–building models, discussing dreams–but Stéphanie can’t dwell in dreams forever and Stéphane’s feelings for her begin to creep slowly toward a child-like obsession. The tentative love story at the center of the film is more of a tragedy than anything else. As much as Stéphanie is drawn to Stéphane it’s clear that they’re doomed. They may see the world in a similar way, but the film implies that won’t be enough to hold them together which is particularly heartbreaking for Stéphane who so desperately needs an anchor. Brilliant and talented though he is, he just can not escape his own mind enough to fully engage with the world around him.
Taken together Big Fish and The Science of Sleep illustrate the full spectrum of the effects a vivid imagination can have on adult lives. Both films are brimming with wonder and creativity leaps out at you from every direction: there are giants and giant hands, circus motifs and heroic daydreams, flying ponies and love at first sight. It is evident that everyone involved is a lover of stories and that love gives both films warmth even when they are at their darkest.
What makes them a particularly poignant pairing though is the way that they refrain from flinching away from the truth that people can dwell in dreams too much. The ill effects Edward and Stéphane’s fantasies have on the people they love (and on themselves) are thoroughly explored by both filmmakers, but they end on totally different notes. From Burton we get a hopeful take in the end, one that emphasizes the importance of imparting stories on to the next generation, whereas Gondry offers up an ending that is more ambiguous. Both understand and convey the same central truth though: there is power and a special kind of magic that comes from having an active imagination at any age.
That’s it for this month’s double feature, but I’d love to hear your thoughts about both films in the comments!
Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman