Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Play time: 1h 48min
Director: Michel Gondry
Screenwriters: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo
“Clementine has had Joel erased from her memory. Please never mention their relationship to her again.”
Sidenote: If you haven’t seen the film and plan to do so, it’s probably a bad idea to read this.
Erasing Unwanted Memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
It’s too hard to deal sometimes, you know? Memories stew in your head, nag at your brain, come back at the least opportune moments, torture you with regrets, second thoughts, “if only I had done it differently.” They make you curse being sentient, hate your mind for constantly churning. Sometimes you just want to stick a fork in your brain and be rid of it or, if you’re in a more fanciful mood, you might dream of a way to wipe your brain clean of the unpleasantness, the poison, the sickly goo that won’t wash off.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s dizzying allegory, imagines a way to erase unwanted memories without any medical side effects. “Technically, the procedure is brain damage,” says Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), when the latter inquires about the risks of the procedure. “It’s on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you’ll miss.” The doctor makes a “mental map” of the person or event to be eliminated; later, his technicians infiltrate the patient’s appartment while he sleeps and painstakingly remove every trace of the object from his brain.
Joel is in this not just for comfort, but also for retaliation. He is informed that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet), who had become moody, erratic and withdrawn before abruptly breaking off contact, had the procedure performed with him as the target. Bewildered and unsure whether it is some sort of hoax or cruel joke (as an aside, I suspect that the film may have been even stronger had the medical technology in question already been assimilated into its world, thus eliminating that aspect of the plot entirely), Joel runs to Dr. Mierzwiak, who assures him that it is nothing of the sort. So he signs himself up, hoping that for him too, that painful relationship would soon cease to exist.
Toying With Space, Time & Existence
Charlie Kaufman, the phenom screenwriter whose bizarre meta-films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) have attracted more attention than his less self-conscious stories (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Human Nature, the latter also directed by Michel Gondry), now tries combine the two, in a way. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind toys with space, time and existence in the same way Adaptation did, but is also a self-contained story, free of overt references to Hollywood and Kaufman himself.
To call the story “self-contained” is not to imply that it is simple. Oh no. It swerves, doubles back on itself, crosses dimensions and travels through time. Much of the film is spent with the protagonist unconscious, and Dr. Mierzwiak’s technicians (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) making mincemeat of his brain. Though asleep, Joel decides that he doesn’t want to go through with the erasure and embarks on a quest to “hide” Clementine from the marauding brain-surgeons, the two of them tracking across the increasingly surreal landscape of Joel’s memory as it fades away before their eyes.
Clever Stylization from Gondry
Michel Gondry is known as a stylist, and his visual take on this material is really something else, but his biggest accomplishment by far is how deftly he maneuvers through the seemingly impossible narrative. To take something as ostensibly “gimmicky” as this and to make it affecting, profound, real, is much more difficult than the most impressive camera stunt, and Gondry is the real deal on both fronts. Whether you choose to see the film as a science-fiction mind-trip, a neat literalization of the way human relationships progress, or both, all credit to the director for guiding us through this pitfall-ridden project unharmed, even if he does sometimes seem a bit enamored with his own virtuosity.
Jim Carrey’s Talent isn’t Reflected in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
People have begun making the idiotic distinction between the “goofy” and the “serious” Jim Carrey roles, and I suppose this would fall in the latter category. I’ll watch anything with Carrey (except maybe The Majestic a second time), and while the manic image that defines him may be an accurate depiction of his personality, it does not reflect the extent of his talents. Time and again he has proven his ability to handle real roles, and here we have what might be his least quintessential part to date. The character of Joel Barish didn’t need Jim Carrey, but Jim Carrey embodies him entirely. It’s great work.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind concludes with a decidedly hopeful affirmation of two people’s ability to talk to each other, to get beyond whatever silly situation they may find themselves in, look each other in the eyes and communicate on an intimate and elevated plane. In its clever dystopian conceit, the film hides an astute analysis of, to borrow a phrase from Mandy Moore, how we deal.