Double Feature: Dashed Dreams of Unrequited Love (Le Notti Bianche & The Science of Sleep)
From sweeping epic romances to quirky meet-cutes, we’ve all been fed stories of grand love for centuries now. While one can soberly acknowledge that the vast majority of these stories prove to be unrealistic, it can be hard not to feel lured in by all of the potential that an idealized grand romance can offer. Valentine’s Day, of course, embodies all of that grand Hollywood happy-ending nonsense, and while I personally enjoy the excuse to down a buncha chocolate, I know it can get a lot of people down. So instead of adding to that whole mess, I'm bringing you two films that will hook you right in the coronary and let you bleed out a bit–some therapeutic soul deflation to counteract the pressures of the day. Y’know, for health.
Leading Feature: Le Notti Bianche / White Nights (1957)
The films of Luchino Visconti always seem to embody both beauty and sorrow, which is the best way to sum up Le Notti Bianche. Based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) is new in town and longs for meaningful social interaction. He happens upon a young crying woman standing on a bridge and decides to approach her. Initially reluctant to speak to him, eventually Natalia (Maria Schell) opens up to Mario, explaining that she is waiting for her love (Jean Marais) who promised to reunite with her in this spot after a year’s time. The story doesn’t sit right with Mario, but nevertheless he’s touched by her innocence and her romantic sensibility. He quickly falls in love with her, doubting that her lover will return, and hoping she’ll turn her sights on him instead. Natalia, however, only values him as a friend–trusting him enough to even give him a letter to mail in hopes of contacting her lover. Mario, not so much maliciously as he thinks he’s doing her a favor, secretly disposes of it.
Mario encourages Natalia to keep living her life instead of waiting in vain night after night. For her part, Natalia appreciates the company and the attention of this young handsome man, but she pointedly keeps Mario at arms length. Eventually he convinces her to go with him to a dance club, where the two have so much fun that Mario’s convinced this is the night she’ll give up on the old flame and choose him instead. But as timing would have it, Natalia’s mystery man miraculously appears. Giving her no details on what exactly he'd been doing for the past year, he proclaims his love for Natalia and the two head off. As the snow falls, Mario finds himself left alone on that same bridge.
I can’t overstate how cinematically beautiful Le Notti Bianche is. Lunchino Visconti shot the film entirely on elaborately built sets and paid truly stunning attention to the composition and lighting. It’s a testament to Visconti’s excellent direction, as well as the superb acting by both leads, that this movie can make you laugh out loud while still managing to be genuinely gut-wrenching. Le Notti Bianche is about the death of innocence, as told through two doomed romances. Natalia just embodies naiveté; from her pining and weeping to her clueless exclamations of friendship towards the obviously lovesick Mario. She’s too blinded by her own love to be objective about a situation that’s clearly questionable. But it's hard to be cynical about Natalia because she's just so damn innocent. She embodies that innocent “puppy love” phase most people go through but hopefully outgrow at a certain point.
Mario, on the other hand, is a symbol of hope and longing. Mario has been around the block enough to know Natalia is being naive, and yet he still manages to set himself up for failure. He could easily have fallen into an unsympathetic “nice guy” character, except for that one bit of character development where he blurts out about how he has no family, no friends and no consistency in his life. Mario confessing he spends so much time daydreaming that he forgets to live is truly an emotional gut punch. Suddenly it all comes together–Mario may know a bit more when it comes to dating but at the end of the day he's just as innocent as she is. He's the hope we don't grow out of and instead just bury and bury as we get older, in hopes that it either suffocates or miraculously comes true.
Visconti also crushes it with the symbolism in this film. When Mario takes Natalia to his special place under the bridge, his romantic moment is pointedly undercut by the hordes of homeless people sleeping there. It's the most damning symbolic moment of the entire film; Mario confessing he doesn't make any money but the strength of his love will make up for it, juxtaposed with people literally sleeping on the streets while it snows. The ending of the film is also shrouded in mystery and shadows. That we can barely see Jean Marais' face throughout, on top of his ominous “you don't know the trouble I'm in” that he confesses before he leaves, makes you realize Natalia’s inevitable marriage is most likely just as doomed. (Knowing that divorce wasn’t legal in Italy until the 1970s just piles on more weight to the situation.) The power of love only takes you so far.
Having been on both sides of this desire-coin I found myself bleeding for both Mario and Natalia, even if the film can quite easily be boiled down to a melodramatic soap opera. But that didn't stop me from being able to laugh at poor Mario obviously wanting to throw himself off the bridge the second he got stuck in LA ZONA DEGLI AMICI. We’ve all been there, buddy. Also: shoutout to Bill Haley and his Comets for making this magic happen.
Second Billed: The Science of Sleep (2006)
I’ll be frank: anybody who dismissed this film as simply a quirky romantic tale has missed the point entirely. After his father passes away, Stéphane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is lured to France by his mother’s promise of a graphic design job. Through a case of mistaken identity, he meets his neighbor Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her friend Zoé (Emma de Caunes), the latter of which he initially develops a quick crush on. Frustrated by his bland job doing calendar formatting at a junky printing firm, Stéphane begins to fantasize about romance instead. His attentions quickly shifts from Zoé to Stéphanie after he realizes she’s also an artist with similar sensibilities.
Excited at the prospect of Stéphanie becoming his girlfriend, Stéphane begins to make her thoughtful but wacky gifts; such as a one-second time travel machine or a motorized body for her stuffed animal horse. But Stéphane has a hard time splitting his fantasies from reality and he quickly becomes disillusioned when his unrealistic romantic expectations of Stéphanie don’t line up with the no-nonsense woman that she actually is. Realizing that she’s not interested in him romantically, he starts to lash out at her instead, which just causes him to embarrass himself and further alienate Stéphanie. By the end of the film, the only achievable happy ending for the two of them exists quite literally in his dreams.
The Science of Sleep is a film about expectations and rejection. Like its main character, the audience is blinded by director Michel Gondry’s fantastical dream sequences and fun inventions into thinking everything could work out for these two crazy kids. But Stéphane is an unreliable narrator, and the love story remains unrequited. It was largely doomed to begin with, as Stéphane’s still reeling from the death of his father and a lonely relocation to a new country. He’s desperate for somebody to rescue him, not only himself but the banality of being an adult. Throw in the fact that he’s an artist and a romantic, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disappointment.
Stéphane’s disappointment at being rejected is a universal experience. “I wish I could go back to a time where I didn’t find her attractive” he bemoans, especially since he thought he was initially compromising by setting his sights on his second choice crush. Stéphane clearly views romance as a way to fill a void within himself, a fairly toxic approach that typically causes more couples to sink than float. He allows his imagination to run wild and compensate for all of the truths of the actual situation he doesn’t want to face. The real Stéphanie is not, in fact, the woman he dreams about; she has hidden tattoos, she’s confident with men, she doesn’t believe in marriage, and she’s not interested in Stéphane’s neurotic and quixotic tendencies. Realizing this, Stéphane gets thrown into a crisis–unlike him, she doesn’t need saving at all.
Yet Stéphanie’s rejection of him never feels wantonly cruel. She actually comes across as the more mature of the two, rebuffing his grand gestures and doing her best not to take advantage of his kindness. Stéphane’s crass coworker Guy (Alain Chabat), in a rare moment of insightfulness, wonders if perhaps Stéphanie has a pattern of unknowingly hurting others in an attempt to shield her own emotions. It’s a plausible and sad lesson about romantic timing, but it’s also more likely that her interest in Stéphane was purely artistic to begin with–the rest was simply in his head. Even after Stéphane freaks out in the hallway, headbutting her door and crying, Stéphanie still attempts to make amends with him. But by then Stéphane feels too embarrassed and too betrayed to buck up and make a friendship work.
This is one of my all time favorite films, and one I find relatable on every level. You could even view every character in this film as being different parts of one person, and not just because of the Stéphane / Stéphanie name coincidence. Seeing as this was the first feature film both written and directed by Michel Gondry, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was a personal project for him as well. Charlotte Gainsbourg does such a great job at being both the dream girl and a realistic adult woman who doesn’t swoon in the face of romance. The ever-charming Gael Garcia Bernal seemingly bounces off every boundary of his character; I love how he's both his biggest champion and his own worst villain. Gondry's amazing direction and unique style ties it all together and makes The Science of Sleep a perfect film to me.