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Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (R) (2004)

Focus Features

Official Site

Director: Michel Gondry

Producers: Anthony Bregman, David L. Bushell, Steve Golin

Written by: Charlie Kaufman

Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, David Cross, Jane Adams


There’s that school of philosophy that addresses the question of whether or not memory determines reality. You know, the idea that once passed, events only exist in memory, so if they were to be forgotten, for all intents and purposes, they never happened. Movies have been looking into this for years, from the film version of Slaughterhouse Five, to Ah-nuld’s own tour through metaphysical debate, Total Recall.

The problem with films like these, however, has been the allegorical sheen placed over their themes. Slaughterhouse Five tries to present recaptured experience as a consciously forceful way to act out, sapping memory of its natural mystery. Total Recall gets its viewpoint muddled up in a parable about class struggle amid a rampant technology culture. Plus, it just plain sucks. Neither film really gets inside memory as a place of ambiguity, as a constant state of flux where concrete knowledge gives way to modified perception, where God is in the perpetually morphing details that, in spite of themselves, tell the story of the past as well as it can be told.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind understands that concept and runs with it wholeheartedly. Clementine (Winslet), explaining her revolving door of hair colors, says that she “applies her personality in a paste,” proving herself a person best suited for memory: We all know how hard it is to pin down those details when searching the backrooms of recollection, and Clementine is a character who makes it just as hard in life. Maybe that’s why Joel (Carrey) allows her to draw him out of his shell—she’s a model for altering how you let yourself be perceived, and it’s no secret how bored he is with himself.

The film begins with their chance meeting after Joel impulsively (a word we find doesn’t normally apply to Joel) decides to skip work and take a train to the beach in the dead of winter. He ends up taking Clementine to her apartment, and when he gets to his own place, he calls her (another thing obviously not typical of our Joel), and so the relationship begins. The film then takes us to after their breakup, with Joel attempting to make amends by visiting Clementine at the bookstore where she works, only to have her politely treat him as a complete stranger.

Joel does some digging and finds out that not long after their breakup, Clementine visited a clinic called Lacuna, Inc. Upon making a visit to the clinic, Joel discovers that, as its name might suggest, Lacuna, Inc., specializes in “memory wipes.” Apparently, the experience of her relationship with Joel was so terrible that Clementine chose to have all memory of him erased from her mind. After speaking with Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson, equal parts soft bedside manner and chilling disingenuousness), Joel decides to return the favor.

Enter Joel’s Mind. As individual memories begin to fade from view, Joel, running through them like some realist version of a Salvador Dalí dream sequence, begins to regret his decision. He gradually comes to understand that his memories define him. Soon, after yanking Clementine from her appropriate place, the two begin memory-hopping to screw up the landscape and hopefully confuse the faceless procedure erasing their surroundings.

It’s fantasy with the philosophy amplified to the nth degree, and what eventually emerges is Charlie Kaufman’s most humane story yet. His screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, while terrifically skewed and magically clear-eyed at the same time, both fell into a trap lined with soulless satire. Spike Jonze is a master of chic cynicism, and while his biting irony gave each film sharp wit and a cracked intensity, they were ultimately mannered and empty. Only in fleeting moments could you glimpse Kaufman’s earnestness; the rest of the time he was overshadowed by Jonze’s artificial gloss.

Michel Gondry shows himself to be a humanist with Eternal Sunshine. Unfortunately, toward the final third of the film, he lets loose his indulgent side, and the wrap-up, while it makes sense within the scheme of Kaufman’s vision, dips into a little dewy-eyed folly here, a little hard-edged retribution there, eventually trying to wind the two together without ever really developing either. But until then, Gondry doesn’t falter. His breezy direction, never sentimental but always sincere, lets Kaufman’s story settle into a rhythm unlike any of his previous screenplays: Eternal Sunshine, in the end, comes off as a delicately charitable act. Which makes sense, because, really, with a character named “Clementine,” what can you expect but kindness?

—Cole Sowell


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