Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
A Film directed by Michel Gondry
written by Charles Kaufman from a story by Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth


The new film from director Michel Gondry, written by Charlie Kaufman, based on a story developed by Kaufman, Gondry and artist Pierre Bismuth, is a quirky, surrealist meditation on identity and relationships that gives Jim Carrey (finally) a role that moves him beyond shtick into the realm of actual acting, and I'm happy to report that he acquits himself admirably in what is an interesting and entertaining film.

Kaufman (Human Nature, Being John Malkevich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation) has created another of the peculiar, provocative screenplays that have become his trademark. His off-the-wall narrative is effectively matched by Gondry's surrealist visual imagery and fearless, non-traditional approach to mise-en-scene.

Gondry arranged to meet Kaufman after he read and admired his screenplay for Being John Malkevich. The two discussed the project that would become Eternal Sunshine... but first collaborated on Gondry's debut feature, the critically appreciated but little seen Human Nature.

Gondry's experience had been in making very popular music videos for artists like Bjšrk, The White Stripes and The Chemical Brothers. He brings the same iconoclastic, oneiric sensibility to his narrative filmmaking and in the vehicle of Kaufman's script he has a story that lends itself to the blending of imaginary and realistic images.

The story has a sort of a medical-science-fiction premise - that there is a medical procedure that can be used to erase certain memories - a sort of highly selective lobotomy. "Can this cause brain damage?" asks protagonist Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). "Well," replies the inventor, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), "Technically the process is brain damage."

Barish has had several disturbing encounters with his live-in girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), who has recently walked out on him during an argument. She acts like she doesn't even know him. In seeking sympathy from friends, he discovers that they have received a letter from a company appropriately called Lacuna, Inc, informing them that Clementine has "erased" Joel from her memory, and requesting that they refrain from mentioning him to her.

In his anguish at being so rejected, Joel decides that he will try to put an end to his pain by having his memories of Clementine similarly erased. He contacts Lacuna, Inc and Dr, Mierzwiak, and contracts for their services. But as the process gets underway, Joel realizes that he doesn't want to forget Clementine. The body of the film is about his attempts - in the world inside his head - to preserve his memories against the onslaughts of Lacuna's technology.

In the process, Kaufman explores the degree to which our experience and the meaning we attach to it - the constellations of images we arrange into related webs of structure - defines who we are, and the degree to which who we are defines what we remember and how we remember it. It is an intriguing subject, with reference to the Existentialist dictum propounded by Sartre that meaning is something we add to experience afterwards.

Kaufman's analysis is a bit more romantic and less arbitrary than Sartre's. He seems to be arguing that there is some essence of who we are that influences the way we relate to and process experience - that thus we might well be attracted to the same things and people and recreate our attachment to them, even if our historical connection to them were erased. A parallel sub-plot of another relationship that figures in the story seems to confirm this view.

But the "conclusion" is by no means hard and fast - just a possibility. Kaufman's (and Gondry's) real joy is in the exploration itself, probing the paradoxes of identity and memory and playing with the distortions, both unconscious and conscious, that we apply to our recollections. They exploit the comic possibilities of memory in some truly ingenious ways.

They clearly enjoy creating the dislocative overlaps of narrative that blend memory with present action, and imagination with both, to explore the versatile, creative nature of consciousness, and the flimsiness of that one narrow band of the spectrum of consciousness we call "reality."

The result is a sort of odd-ball romantic comedy that gives the audience far more to chew on than most of the genre, yet in the end resolves into an optimistic but clear-eyed, existential take on the old "boy-finds-girl; boy-loses-girl; boy-finds-girl" formula. In doing so, it illuminates the clichŽ with a new light that suggests new insight into the riddles of attraction and love.

Kaufman's screenplay is suitably confusing and disorienting. the narrative is disjointed in time and in consciousness - veering from consensual reality to imagination to memory and back without warning or explanation. "Continuity" as we have been taught to think about it in film is out the window. The flood of loosely-related imagery that makes up so much of our perception of the world around us is at the center of the film.

Gondry's filmmaking style is a visual reflection of this recognition that our inner world is at least partly one of higgledy-piggledy impressions, that connect to existing memories, ideas, hopes and fears to create patterns of relatedness that we call memory. He allows the camera to roam freely; to peek from behind objects or to confront its subjects head-on; to create carefully lit and crafted frames that echo the conventions of traditional movie-making, and wild, random sequences with hand-held camera and a single, undiffused light-source that look like home-movie footage.

The mixture is effective - a visual evocation of the shifting levels of perception that the characters are experiencing. The frame is often overloaded with details, in the same way the dreams are - they go by so fast and are supplanted by others in such a stream that even though they register, they are difficult or impossible to recall. The vertiginous disorientation this image-flood creates is a felt-sense of what the characters are going through.

Gondry gets help from an accomplished cast, who walk the fine line between underplaying and exaggeration - either of which might have been fatal to the film's efforts. Jim Carrey finally emerges from behind the mugging and grimacing that made him a "star" and shows sensitivity and a real talent for a much more subtle and intellectual kind of comedy that he has formerly displayed.

The role calls for a character who can enlist our sympathy without ingratiating himself, whose weaknesses - his insecurities and his arrogance for instance - turn out to be aspects of his best qualities as well. It is a hard kind of multi-layered portrayal for an actor to put across and much to Carrey's credit, he pulls it off with great style. This is a Jim Carrey we haven't seen on screen before - in a far more mature, intelligent and challenging role than the broad physical comedy with which he has mostly been identified - and welcome to him.

Kate Winslet - who, it seems, can do just about anything - is perfect here, with a naturalistic, relaxed performance that takes the edge of her character's quirks - that with less careful treatment might easily have looked like psychosis. Her Clementine is just what she declares herself to be: "a messed up girl trying to find her way to some peace," - not a romantic fantasy or a dream-girl, but a unique individual, with qualities, strengths and limitations that are hers alone. Not to mention the fact that her letter-perfect American accent ought to qualify her for osme sort of award.

Tom Wilkinson, who plays Dr. Mierzwiak, is a model of the facade of medical detachment and omnipotence - and as it turns out, medical over-reaching and venality as well. Mark Ruffalo, as nerdy techie Stan who oversees the process and has a crush on office receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), disappears into the character with great skill and effect. Dunst herself makes a daring and interesting investment in a small but pivotal role that hints at what she may do in the future once she is able to attract more challenging parts.

The weak link in the ensemble is Elijah Wood, as techie-helper Patrick, who never quite seems to get a handle on who his character is - too self-assured in the scenes in which he has to play the geek, and too awkward in those in which he has to play the selfish manipulator. But the role doesn't seem to be particularly well-written either, and the lapse may be as much the fault of screenwriter Kaufman as of actor Wood.

The camera work is all over the place. Gondry's music-video background shows in the delight he takes in flouting cinematic conventions of visual composition in narrative films and the dream/imagination sequences give him free rein to legitimize nearly any kind of bizarre image-making. He takes advantage of that freedom to work with the images in original and imaginative ways, but manages not to stray over into self-indulgent license.

Cinematographer Ellen Kuras - whose resume includes such disparate efforts as Spike Lee's Bamboozled, the Isaak Mizrah documentary Unzipped, the indie hit Personal Velocity and the mainstream comedy Analyze That - is equal to the assignment, able to provide both the polished self-assurance of the Hollywood "set-up" and the edgy, seat-of the pants feel of documentary or experimental film. Her flexibility in shooting the same sequence - sometimes even the same shot - in a variety of styles that make important distinctions in point of view, is essential to realizing Gondry's story.

The production design, art direction and set design are essential to the film's success, providing a stable, convincing background against which the surrealistic action can unfold, and subtly underlining the surreal elements in the vision of "reality," effectively intertwining the various levels on which the film operates.

This is the most consistently successful of Kaufman's screenplays that I have seen - better-constructed and more fully-realized than his Academy Award winning Adaptation. He and Gondry make a good team, complementing each other's strengths without encouraging each other to solepcistic excesses. They have ambitiously dared to make an engaging, intelligent, unusual film, and they have succeeded Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the comes from a stanza in an Alexander Pope poem extolling the bliss of ignorant innocence) is the best film I have seen so far in 2004 and may well stand as one of the best of the year.

 

That's my take on it. What's yours?