Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, music video wunderkind Michel Gondry’s wonderful new film based on a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), has a premise so good, so original and yet so universal, that it’s hard to believe no one ever thought of it before. Reclusive nebbish Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) has just been dumped by his flighty girlfriend Clementine (a euphoric, frazzled Kate Winslet). When he runs into her a few weeks later, she doesn’t recognize him, and Joel soon learns it’s because she’s had him erased from her memory. Angry at her eagerness to forget their relationship – and yet desperate to do likewise – Joel goes to Lacuna, a business that wipes memory banks clean via a bit of location-specific brain damage (“On a par with a heavy night of drinking,” the doc assures him), and sets about having Clementine permanently removed from his mind.
Kaufman’s script dissects the human brain’s inextricable intertwining of pleasant and painful memories, and acutely depicts how each moment in our life helps us construct – in ways both large and small – who we are at the present moment. When Joel realizes that he’s going to lose both the bad and good times he shared with Clementine, he revolts against the procedure, going deeper and deeper into his subconscious to hide a joyous memory of his former love from Lacuna’s brain hackers. Gondry’s swift, digital-electric direction melds Joel’s present and past experiences in a swirl of CGI-enhanced images in which memories fluidly bleed together and rip apart at warp speed. The film has a deft comedic lightness, and the repetition of simple motifs (the color orange, a flashlight spotlight) gives Eternal Sunshine a subtle interconnectedness that mirrors the tangled web of Joel’s memories. Gondry’s dazzling work is ably matched by Jon Brion’s jittery yet soulful score, which has an antsy lilt that’s wonderfully complemented by nerve-wracking computer bleeps and blips and the sound of tape rewinding and fast-forwarding.
At the heart of the story is Joel’s emotional retardation and seclusion, embodied with both introverted wit and frightening desperation by Carrey. Joel is a man for whom isolation functions as a cocoon, shielding him from the feelings of misery and helplessness that Clementine’s desertion wrought. The film loses some of its tightly-knit cohesiveness by spending time on two mildly distracting subplots – one concerning Lacuna co-workers Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkenson) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the other about nerdy technician Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Clementine – but one can forgive Gondry’s film for its minor missteps. The film opens with a shot of Joel opening his eyes in bed – an image that encapsulates the character’s subsequent journey toward awakening – and culminates in a moment of bittersweet hope that speaks to the primacy of the future over the past. Gondry and Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique deconstruction of man’s innate desire to avert heartache. It’s also a lovely film based around an ingenious concept I wish I’d thought of myself.