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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

by on 2011/11/27

“She’s punishing me for being honest.”

* * * * *

Wait, don’t go. Hear me out.

Yes, Jim Carrey is in it, but his hyperkinetic act is dialed way down. Way, way, way down. Even the haters (you know who you are) may find him redeemed for a time.

It reminded me of producer George Martin, asking Celine Dion to suppress her vocal gymnastics when they recorded a Beatles cover. Apparently director Michel Gondry got such an agreement from his star in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

His presence should be less decisive than the question of your experience with love. Have you ever loved? Impulsively, irrationally, or unconditionally? Have you fallen out again? Have you destroyed your souvenirs? Have you tried to start again with the hope of the past not repeating?

The answers are actually less important than being familiar with the questions.

Joel (Carrey) has been in and out of love, sometimes with the very same woman. He just doesn’t know it yet. A quiet, unimpulsive man, he keeps to himself but speaks his mind when necessary. He’s generally unromantic, unless you count his ever-present notebook as a companion.

One particularly arduous Valentine’s Day, he ditches work, goes jumping someone else’s train, and runs headlong into an eccentric kindred spirit, Clementine (Heavenly Creatures’ Kate Winslet). She’s as attractive as she is difficult for her personality: talkative, forward, and pushy, a high-maintenance alcoholic.

Over the course of the film, we follow their relationship in a series of flashbacks as seen through Joel’s mind. Are we seeing an accurate history? Biased memory? Is it the past at all, or a backward-spooling future?

In their darkest hour, Clementine undergoes a medical procedure to have him removed from her mind. He desperately does the same but, partway through the process, he has doubts, and fights the erasure.

I couldn’t help feeling badly for him. Not only because I am so much like Joel myself, but because the Lacuna method struck me as both cruel and impractical. Without following her, he’s doomed to a life of inexplicable disparity and lies; if he does likewise, he might notice the missing time. Is a failing relationship a more difficult prospect? Do we naturally “fill in the spaces” and, if so, with what?

Taking the “mind-wipe” conceit as given, we have a quasi-sci-fi effort as original in its craft as in its story and themes. The protagonists develop limited skill to navigate the flashbacks, going “off the map” and affecting the environments (though the world can do the same to them in turn). The continuum of a personal timeline is punched apart by plot, editing, and an increasingly stuttering soundtrack.

Joel hears disembodied voices echoing through his inner world, and begins to understand his meta-level situation. Fantasy and reality blur together as the attending clinicians’ lives — their affairs, drug use, and exploitation — interact with his own.

Gondry demonstrates disintegration, perspective, and state of mind with a wide range of production techniques, some theatrical, some high-tech. Subjects are isolated by spotlights in the dark; handheld cameras follow, focusing on faces; elements of the environment change and vanish with CGI and stop-motion (de)compositions.

When the lights go out and the faces vanish, you may decide it’s more horror than romance. As the end credits rolled, I croaked at Gru, “Who is the audience for this?” Yes, it’s end-to-end brilliant, but its very effectiveness must make it a trial for the solitary, and a test for the connected.

As I walked home, video in hand, I thought of Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. Why keep doing difficult things, even impossible ones? And why would anyone do them willingly? Might forgetting between attempts make it easier? I don’t have an answer, but Eternal Sunshine makes prompting such questions satisfying.

* * * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

108 minutes

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