Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

(Michel Gondry, USA, 2004)


These days, almost everyone accepts that the true auteur of a film is its director. But among the exceptions that prove this rule is the still young but astonishingly coherent career of a wildly talented American writer, Charlie Kaufman.

So far, Kaufman has allied himself with fledgling directors who have arrived at cinema from a background in music video (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) or acting (George Clooney). Whether through chance or design, this has had the effect of foregrounding his artistic personality over theirs.

Two central themes drive Kaufman's creativity. All his projects inhabit a particular mental universe, whether belonging to a writer (Adaptation, 2002), a celebrity (Being John Malkovich, 1999) or a hired assassin (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002). With the movie lodged (as it were) inside somebody's head, Kaufman can play numerous games with perception and memory.

This recurring theme may give his scripts their comic value, but it is the second theme that really gains Kaufman his creative edge. The mental universe he paints is profoundly psychoanalytic; the perceptions and memories of his characters are riddled with the traces of guilt, denial, repression, fantasy projection. And one special fantasy insists: the dream to start a troubled life over again, to have a second chance.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is at once Kaufman's most ingenious and most probing attempt at expressing these ideas through the language of cinema. And, to give the nominal auteur his due, it signals an enormous leap forward for Gondry beyond the glib irony of his feature debut, Human Nature (2001) – Kaufman's weakest script.

For writer and director alike, Eternal Sunshine offers a welcome chance to move from comedy to drama, and to explore characters who are more than conceptual ciphers between quotation marks.

Joel (Jim Carrey) is an ordinary, shy guy wounded by a love affair gone wrong. Puzzled by the inability of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), to even recognise him, let alone acknowledge their recently shared past, he makes a shocking discovery. Clementine has paid to have the exact portion of her memory containing Joel surgically wiped, at a small business named Lacuna. So Joel decides that he, in turn, will have Clementine erased from his mind.

In a risky move that is pulled off brilliantly, Eternal Sunshine balances this patently unreal, even frankly silly sci-fi premise – involving nerdy technicians locating and zapping blips of isolated memory on a computer screen, as in Paycheck (2003) – against a downbeat, everyday realism of detail. Carrey and Winslet are superb as the grungy, moody, often inarticulate lovers.

Its science may be cartoonish but, once the erasure process on Joel is underway, Eternal Sunshine reaches dizzy heights in its depiction of knotty mental processes. Joel does not simply lose his memory, he sees and hears this memory slowly disappearing. And it is here that Gondry's MTV-style inventiveness is put to good use, finding a dozen different ways (using darkness, blurriness, sudden movements and decaying music samples) to signify this falling-into-oblivion.

If there is one gift that distinguishes Kaufman from his screenwriting contemporaries, it is his unerring ability to find major ways of varying and complicating the central premises of his stories. When Joel starts resisting the memory erasure and 'fights the machine', he realises – or rather, is advised by his fantasy-projection of Clementine – that he should hide his memories in dark, inaccessible parts of his unconscious.

This leads to some wonderfully hilarious and surreal vignettes involving Joel's adolescence and childhood. But the decisive move in the story – which I will not give away here – comes from outside Joel's consciousness, in a subplot involving a Lacuna worker, Mary (Kirsten Dunst).

Suffice to say, the Tarantino-style trick in the narrative construction makes perfect sense in terms of the film's deepest themes – a rare pleasure in contemporary American cinema.

Eternal Sunshine is one of those movies destined to generate a mountain of commentary, of both the journalistic and academic kind. In the many words already devoted to the film since its release, few seem to have realised that it appears to be an unofficial remake of a brilliant but little-seen film by Alain Resnais, Je t'aime, Je t'aime (I Love You, I Love You, 1968).

That, too, is about a man whose mind is caught in a scientific experiment that goes wrong, hurling him non-chronologically through the moments of his life. More subtly than Eternal Sunshine, it is a film about the resistance of the unconscious, and the variations upon reality that memory creates.

Above all, for all its structural sophistication – a despite the fact that Resnais declares himself less interested in personal memory than in the science of the brain – Je t'aime, je t'aime is a plaintive movie about a relationship. When asked about the subject of the film, Resnais simply replied: "A man meets a woman. That's all."

The same description could proudly apply to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, it is not a perfect film. Kaufman and Gondry cannot resist some facile humour in the scenes involving Mary and Stan (Mark Ruffalo) frolicking over the comatose Joel. And several of the sub-plot complications (especially involving Stan and Clementine) get a little lost in the rush.

Nonetheless, this is a true event-film, with a heart big enough to match its brain.

MORE Carrey: The Cable Guy, The Truman Show, Batman Forever, Man on the Moon, Fun with Dick and Jane, Liar Liar

© Adrian Martin April 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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