“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is the second collaboration between screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and music video maestro Michel Gondry (their first was 2001’s “Human Nature”). It certainly bears the hallmarks of Kaufman’s self-reflexive fantasias, but, in its merging of narrative form and experimental technique, this is pure Gondry, and a dazzling showcase of his conceptual imagination.
Throughout his career, Gondry has mined the trove of his own dreams and childhood memories. Nothing quite makes sense in Gondry’s world but, in that secret language of dream-logic, in which sound and image mingle like the synaptic phantasmagoria of deep sleep, his cinema can be downright revelatory as you’re experiencing it.
Dream-logic lies at the heart of “Eternal Sunshine,” a romantic comedy that questions what it would be like if we could eliminate our worst, most troubling memories. Joel and Clementine’s relationship was littered with them. So, it’s no surprise that, when they break-up, Clementine (Kate Winslet), a hippy-trippy party girl, decides to erase her memories of shy loner Joel (Jim Carrey), using a memory-erasure process invented by a charlatan-neuroscientist, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). When Joel finds out, he decides to follow suit, if only to spite the impetuous Clementine. Assisted by a pair of feckless technicians, Stan and Patrick (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), Mierzwiak places what looks like a souped-up colander on Joel’s head and, with his subject in deep sleep, sets out to slash-and-burn all traces of his Clementine memories.
But, about halfway through his “erasure,” Joel realizes just how much he loves his memories and decides to go AWOL. What follows is a most unusual chase picture as Joel, with Clementine in hand, flees across the far-flung regions of his mindscape, as Mierzwiak tries desperately to track him down, mercenary-like. As Joel and Clementine encounter figments of his darkest memories, she helps him to make peace with them, and, as they re-live the rosiest days of their courtship, they brace against the inevitable destruction at the hands of the memory-erasers soon to come.
Kaufman’s script also interweaves Mierzwiak’s own woes with Mary (Kirsten Dunst), his lovestruck office assistant. She’d rather be musing over Alexander Pope quotations with the good doctor than getting naked and stoned with her boyfriend, Stan. What’s more, Patrick, privy to Clementine’s past, finds himself smitten with her and, cribbing from Joel’s notes, he clumsily woos her with his schoolboy wiles.
If anything, Gondry could have pared Kaufman’s script to its essence—Joel’s odyssey—and used its taut frame to develop his abundance of visual ideas. Gondry’s kinetic style, along with Kaufman’s crammed script, overwhelms its otherwise pitch-perfect cast. Carrey and Winslet are terrific, but their wonderfully moody scenes together seem needled by the material’s frantic demands, as if Gondry is constantly jabbing at them with his restless, anxious camera. Still, “Eternal Sunshine” is undeniably ambitious filmmaking and a feather in this year’s cap of indie movies. Its message that, try as we might, we’re forever stuck with the very people who drive us crazy can be read as Kaufman-esque in its cynicism, but I’m too won over by Gondry’s sunshine to be anything but delighted by it.
Directed by: Michel Gondry
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Jane Adams, David Cross, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson