Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Posted by: |

What’s not to love? Charles Kaufman screenplay, Focus Features. Jim Carrey. A mind-bending premise about memory erasure and the pain of love. A killer cast, including Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Elijah Wood. I am certain that the same people who tut-tut at Carrey stepping outside his butt-talking box in movies like Man in the Moon and The Majestic will skip this movie. Their loss. I simply adored it. I could say that Eternal Sunshine is sweet, but that’s not quite right. It’s rich and meaty, yet delicate and fragile. Some scenes are just as butterfly-wing light as anything in Lost in Translation, and others are as emotionally intense as – well, we all have our own movie to fill in there. It feels like a really personal movie, because we get so close to the people. It’s like a stew that is delicious but tastes slightly different depending on who eats it.

The central concept of the film is that Tom Wilkinson’s company, Lacuna Inc, has developed a process to target and erase specific painful memories from the mind of the patient. The procedure is no more mysterious or scary than a boob job or a CAT scan in this film. Scientifically speaking, the idea of associating memories by their emotional anchors is sound; using a mini fMRI to “map” the areas they then erase is already in practice today. Rather than over-explaining the procedure, and either insulting us with dialogue that will either be terribly wrong or quickly dated by scientific progress, Kaufman treats it as a matter of course and does as much explaining as any patient would want to hear before undergoing a procedure like Lasik.

Clementine (Winslet) and Joel (Carrey) erase each other, and finds in the newly purchased lacunae what’s really important about memories and themselves as a product of their memories. But I don’t want to give too much away. Most of the film is a tour through Joel’s memories of Clementine, happy, sad, private, and public, witnessed as they disintegrate, and Joel feels their value even as they slip away. It’s tricky conceptually and it’s pulled off beautifully. This is not John Malkovich in drag inside a slimy tunnel; this is a real science fiction double feature, with the love story and the adventure tales superimposed.

It is wonderful and fascinating to see Carrey play such a quiet, introverted person as Joel. To see the physical change when Clementine is around and the effects of her absence works better as an emotional barometer than even Jon Brion’s interesting score; parts of the music sounded as if it were recorded backwards, as if it were being sucked back up into the movie, or into Lacuna’s memory zapper. Brion also did the music for Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love.

What struck me the most in the film was the graceful and innovative use of editing and the production design to weave through the disintegrating map of Clementine in Joel’s mind. The photography is an intimate as a first person point of view and also as epic in the private moments as From Here To Eternity’s beach scene. I saw it twice in a weekend and I will be seeing it again. Art director David Stein and cinematographer Ellen Kuras meld their crafts into a perfect onion to be peeled apart by the movie. Their work delights even as it drags you kicking and screaming through Joel’s overlapping and failing memories even as Joel kicks and screams with you. The camerawork is so intuitive that you feel almost as if you turned your head, so would the point of view change; they are almost your memories.

Sunshine is poignant, nerve-wracking, tenuous, and disorienting. Director and co-writer Michel Gondry strikes a perfect balance between the intellectually high concept and the emotionally complex after effects. To discuss the finer nuances would be to destroy the surprise. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s happening in the entire mise-en-scene, not just the actors talking. This movie rewards your attention and it might pluck your heartstrings. It’s another triumph for Focus Features.

MPAA Rating R -language, some drug use & sexual content
Release date 3/19/04
Time in minutes 108
Director Michel Gondry
Studio Focus Features