Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a lot to wrap your
head and your heart around.
It s a luminous love story that unfolds like a dream, in every possible way you can imagine. How its internal logic hums along so well, I can t really say. That s a bit of pure magic. (At least it s nice to think so.)
You re thrown down unexpected rabbit holes, plopped into new dimensions, disoriented at times, and always pleasantly so; it s never abstract or academic; it s never hard. You never question where you re standing, even if the place you re standing resides only in someone s memory of how the babysitter bathed him in the sink.
And I mean, in that memory.
First, here s the meat:
In the pale white morning of a cold February, Valentine s Day
in fact, Joel (Jim Carrey) calls in sick. He does this on a whim,
mysteriously, almost intuitively; it s an act so spur-of-themoment,
he barely slides through the doors of a train headed to Montauk, the eastern tip of Long Island, but truly the surface of the moon in the middle of winter. Carrey, with his ski hat pulled low to his eyes and scruff taking up residence, has never been so mangy, or so generous with his personality, so introverted; he s a self-involved performer who normally puts his effort front and center, reminding us of every stylized herky-jerky twitch.
Not here: He s as subdued as he is inspired, recessive and
modest. You barely notice Carrey, and maybe warm to him for the
first time. This is not a naked Oscar bid. There s a genuine pain
he seems willing to express, not exploit. At the beach, he spots a
woman with blue hair, a yammering free spirit named Clementine
(Kate Winslet), and immediately falls in love and immediately hates himself for it, too: Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows the least bit of interest in me?
Yet there s a tangible deja vu stalking them. They meet again
in a coffee house, on the train back home, on the street. They re
mismatched for each other; so in movie terms, their courtship
feels inevitable, though the details are melancholy and
charmingly etched: there s her potato head collection; the way
she socks him in the arm; the way their conversations are natural
and they decide somebody has that job of naming hair dyes;
how he worries about fatherhood; the fights and the betrayals;
the way they lie on their backs at night on the frozen
Charles River in Boston, staring at the stars, while behind, a
stream of headlights on the highway flicker in and out of the tree
line. You fall in love with them; and more importantly, you feel
between them this evocative and unmistakable connection.
So far we have a love story.
Then the movie takes a leap, a brave and amazing one: Joel visits Clementine at work. He brings her a present. But she has never
heard of him. At home, he finds a card. It comes through the
mail innocently enough, and explains, politely and fi rmly, your
girlfriend has had you eradicated from her memory; under no circumstances should you attempt to contact her again. You are not
even a memory anymore.
OK, now the gushing:
Carrey runs funny. That aside, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind is the most tender universe created by screenwriter Charlie
Kaufman, the mind behind those worm holes Being John
Malkovich and Adaptation. It s also the fi rst great movie of the
year (released at an odd time of the year), deeply romantic, tremendously moving, terrifically funny all those lazy adjectives
and adverbs critics toss around seem warranted for once. What
a feeling to encounter so lovely and fearless a movie. The first
time I saw it, two months ago, I walked out convinced I would
not see a better fi lm all year. And it was still only early January.
I got excited. So sue me.
Originality does this, and I m not even enamored of Kaufman;
as much as I ve admired his ability to get multiplex audiences
entranced by ideas, there s a distinct lack of feeling to them.
In director Michel Gondry (they previously collaborated on the
2002 misfire Human Nature) he s found the human element he s
needed, a scruffy inventiveness that feels stitched together but
confi dent. The card Joel receives directs him to a Lacuna, Inc., a
humanity-altering business run out of a dentist offi ce. One of the
letters in the name is even gone.
Revolted at Clementine s snap decision, Joel decides to have her
erased from his memory. Technically, he s told, it s brain damage.
It happens in two stages: fi rst, in the office, overseen by the austere
inventor of this remarkable technology (Tom Wilkinson)
and his gabby assistant (Kirstin Dunst); then overnight, as he
sleeps, technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) finish the
rest, smoking pot and hanging out while a Clementine-size hole
is excavated from Joel s brain. This is all, of course, complete
science fi ction. That pretentious, unwieldy title, Eternal Sunshine
of the Spotless Mind pulled from a line by 18th-century
poet Alexander Pope, but just as probably a song title from progressive rock dinosaurs Yes, circa 1974 suggests a geek show, or worse, an art film. It s neither.
Gondry is less opaque with his ideas than, say, the Wachowski
brothers and their Matrix sequels. He knows what he s saying
and says it visually: As Joel s memory fades, we watch him
wander through his own head, as people and moments literally
recede into darkness. One scene, in a Barnes & Noble store,
is as potent an illustration of the sands of time as the movies have
ever given us: Pages erase, titles erase, then sections, people, the
room glides out of his head, and Joel (literally) changes his mind.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, whatever hints of sci-fi there are
here are distinctly low-tech. The most elaborate prop is the minderasing device, and if you look closely, you ll notice a retrofi tted
spaghetti strainer thing, like something out of Plan 9 From
Outer Space. Dunst, name dropping, even gets the title charmingly
wrong, saying it s from Pope Alexander or someone.
That warmth is so welcome; it s the empathy so often brushed past when a fi lmmaker has Things To Say. The further the erasure goes, the more Joel realizes that the very problems he and Clementine had are what brings them together. She s his Magnetic North. He cherishes things about her he doesn t want to lose, even the bad, and frantically attempts to retain some piece, staving off the inevitable.
You lose the most recent memories fi rst, then work backward;
not unlike Alzheimer s. But there are places technology can t go,
like destiny, and true love. Whatever Joel and Clementine have
is up for debate; their future is unmapped. What you get in the
bargain is not: Some love stories are about two people (most love
stories, in fact). You watch from the outside as movie stars find
glamorous love. Love in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
isn t glamorous, contrived, grungy; it s inevitable, and it s us, and
no amount of scrubbing can tidy that eventual, lovely wreckage.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org