There is so much cool talent involved in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that it’s hard to know where to start. Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is proving to be the most influential screenwriter of his generation. And if anyone can out-Spike Jonze director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), it’s Michel Gondry, who worked with him in the late ’90s making music videos.
Mix in two of the biggest actors of the last half-decade (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) and you ought to have one heck of a movie.
R for language, drugs, sexual content
The title comes from an Alexander Pope poem called "Eloise to Abelard."
At the beginning of Being John Malkovich, John Cusack was acting out the story of Eloise and Abelard with marionettes on a street corner.
A new medical procedure has become available. You can selectively erase a person from your memories. Joel (Carrey), applies to have the procedure done, and he asks if the side effects could include brain damage. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) replies “technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage.”
Joel had learned that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Winslet) had him erased from her memories. He knew Clementine could be rash, but the severity of not just being dumped but being erased devastated him.
He decides to erase Clementine, not for revenge, but because he couldn’t bear the pain of having lost, in a manner more cruel than simple death, the first girl he’d really loved. (It’s actually a bit similar to 50 First Dates, but where that film was silly and nice, Eternal Sunshine is painful and dark).
So now Joel is having his memory swept clean. Dr. Mierzwiak conducts the initial interviews, and his technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) prepare to perform the procedure.
Playing with Surrealism
The bulk of Eternal Sunshine takes place inside the mind of Joel during the process of erasing. This subjective landscape gives Kaufman and Gondry free rein to play with surreal images and notions.
Gondry uses visual gimmicks to create an interior world. In memories of Clementine at work in the bookstore, the books are turned spine-inward so that you can’t read the titles, and the signs hanging in the store fade before our very eyes. In another scene, Joel chases Clementine from one corner to the next, only to discover he’s back where he started.
Reliving his memories of Clementine just before they are destroyed, Joel realizes he doesn’t want to lose them after all, even if they pain and haunt him. He tries to wake himself from the procedure, but he can’t. In desperation, he and his Clementine figments decide to hide out in cells of memory where they don’t belong, hoping to foil the technicians. This drives them into disturbing memories of childhood and shame. One wonders what Freud or Dali would say about a boy being dared to smash a dead dove with a hammer.
One scene in particular stands out as a gorgeous example of filmed surrealism. The lovers have reached the end of land, a beach house, at night, filled with sand, and crumbling slowly into dust as the tide comes in. Defeated, they hold each other in heartbreaking farewell as the dark world rips their love out of existence.
This behind-the-scenes talent is a boon to any film, but it’s also, frankly, a bit of a distraction. When you’re appreciating a movie’s filmmaking technique, you’re not necessarily relating to the characters. That need not be a criticism — that could be the point of a movie — but in the case of Eternal Sunshine, getting past the process and seeing into the characters and their stories would probably reveal even more interesting truths.
At its core, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romance. Just as Being John Malkovich revealed the nature of celebrity, Eternal Sunshine has a lot to say about love. Walking through Joel’s head is like walking through Dante’s (or Matt Groening’s) rings of relationship hell. Even the title comes from a passionate poem, referring to those lucky people whose minds are unclouded with love.
Amazingly, Kaufman is able to bring this sad, chaotic mindstorm to a succinct close. With a single word, “Okay,” Kaufman writes the perfect ending. It is a simple, sweet affirmation that I assumed Kaufman was too cynical to be capable of.
As with last week’s Spartan, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not for all tastes. Eight people walked out of my screening, possibly believing this would be a Jim Carrey movie. It isn’t. It’s a Charlie Kaufman movie. It is very good, but it’s also very unconventional.
Years from now, it may be recognized as a classic, but this weekend, it may disappoint Jim Carrey’s fan base. Just keep in mind whose talent is really on display, and enjoy the sunshine.