March 25
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Elaborate Filmmaking of the Thoughtful Kind

Elaborate Filmmaking of the Thoughtful Kind
by Jeremy Mathews

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Focus Features
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Produced by Steve Golin and Anthony Bregman
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, Jane Adams and David Cross
Rated R

(out of four)

A meeting on a beach and a conversation on a deserted subway train, a night looking at the stars while lying on a frozen pond—“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” creates a kaleidoscope of these enchanting memories that began a relationship and the upsetting ones that ended it. The memories occur during a procedure to erase them, creating a bizarre humanistic sci-fi comedy-drama. Other descriptions and genres, like surrealist, nostalgic, expressionistic and nightmare, would also be appropriate.

Jim Carrey stars as Joel, an uptight businessman who is in despair after breaking up with his free-spirited girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet). She acts as if she doesn’t even know him when he visits her at work to try to patch things up. He soon discovers that this is because she’s had him removed from her memory through a clinic run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Joel decides to get revenge by erasing Clementine as well. The office looks like a standard medical-care service, but its machinery maps out memories through cranial positioning located by showing people every object that reminds them of their significant others.

Rather than dwell on the science, most of the film deals with the capabilities and implications of the technology. While Joel is in the room having his memory mapped out, he suddenly realizes that he is already in his home, where the erasure is taking place. The film takes place largely in Joel’s head, with a subplot following the technicians, played by Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood. Wood’s character fell in love with Clementine while doing the procedure and leaves to use Joel’s artifacts as a relationship guideline after Ruffalo’s girlfriend, played by Kirsten Dunst, arrives.

To explain the source of this weird concept, the best I can do is say that Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay, working on the story with director Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. In his sixth produced work, Kaufman again shows his knack for combining extraordinary concepts with sharp observations on ordinary life, like the opportunistic “fans” in “Being John Malkovich” and the awkward human contact of the character supposedly based on himself in “Adaptation.” Here, the characters exist very much as complex individuals trapped in an often bland world until they encounter the amazing procedure.

Gondry’s first film (after several impressive music videos for artists like Björk) was the uneven “Human Nature,” which is the weakest film made from a Kaufman script. Here, due to better initial material and a dizzying visual interpretation of the labyrinth of memory, he proves he can pull off a complex concept in a feature-length film.

The representation of the mind includes odd locational loops and glitches due to insufficient information. The deletion moves backward chronologically, through Joel and Clementine’s last few fights to the discovery of love. At first, Joel interrupts the flow of the arguments by bragging of his retaliation. Things get stranger, however, as he realizes that he doesn’t want to lose all his memories of Clementine because some of them are the happiest moments of his life. He attempts to escape by running to other areas of the brain and finds himself in distorted versions of his childhood.

Carrey and Winslet superbly make sense of the film’s mind games. Once aware of what’s happening, Joel is able to interact beyond the confines of the memory, but also experiences the emotions of that specific moment, demanding an amazing range in even an individual scene. He also becomes able to talk to Clementine about new things, but anything she says is obviously made up by his own brain based on his knowledge of her character. The pair of actors tap into the correct feelings, keeping the concepts clear during moments when the story is intentionally confusing.

Before showing the relationship’s postmortem, the film opens when Joel meets Clementine during an impulsive day at the beach when he randomly calls in sick to work after running to another train platform. He hasn’t written in his journal for two years, and he comments that it’s been a long time since he broke up with Naomi. Later he describes meeting Clementine at a beach party with his friends (Jane Adams and David Cross, both funny) before he broke up with Naomi. These poetic memory discrepancies echo Alan Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), although the plot elements eventually fall into place in this film, as opposed to the purely poetic concept of its precursor.

While the film contains explanations for most of its puzzles in accordance with today’s commercial standards, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” still demands a great deal of thought and attention, becoming a candidate for one of the most thoughtful relationship films of the year.

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