Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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It is, despite the Truman Show, still a bold move to cast Jim Carrey in any movie that doesn’t require outrageous slapstick. Here, Carrey is not just required not to gurn, but to play the most anally retentive character in the film. As a concept, you would think, that would be madness. But, and with a surprising amount of ease, it works. Carrey is credible and likeable as the everyman Joel Barish. Just as Joel is believably uptight (bearish, even?), Kate Winslet’s Clementine is believably flaky, and their relationship (besotted at first, but ultimately at wits’ end with each other) rings very true.

This film is not principally concerned with the memory eraser process. That is simply a device which allows the film maker to explore what would happen if two people who have grown apart really did make the proverbial fresh start without the complications of their existing history interfering. The conceptual holes that misunderstanding pedants might seek to pick are intended rather to underscore the point that this really isn’t possible. The screenplay also explores the converse situation: what might happen if two people who, having just met and still in the throes of infatuation, are confronted with the reality of what life will be like down the track when, as the late Ian Curtis put it, “routine bites hard, and resentment rides high”. Armed with that knowledge, would they still really give it a shot? It’s a good question, and one which in real life never gets properly asked.

Given the preponderance of “twist” movies in the last five years, I was interested to see that Kaufman deliberately defused a plot twist before it went off by presenting Joel’s reconciliation with Clementine before showing their original separation. I wondered, for a while, why he did that, but I think there are two reasons. Firstly, to have the characters fall out of love, erase their memories and then miraculously meet up again as a denouement would be too cheap and manipulative – an audience of the sort Kaufman aspires to attract would see right through that and mark the film down heavily as a result. Secondly, the *fact* of their meeting up again, of itself, isn’t what Kaufman is interested in: rather it is the presentation of their forgotten history once the meet-up has taken place. By giving up that fact before the commencement of play, Kaufman can disarm accusations of cheesy sentimentality.

A large portion of the film takes place while Joel’s memory is in the process of being erased. This allows Kaufman to place a (post-modern) tragic love story in the middle of a film about a couple who have already fallen out of love: Joel knows that, by his own intemperance (in commencing the erasure process in the first place), everything of his relationship (good as well as bad) will be lost as surely as if Clementine has died. As the process wears on, the more her sins pale into significance and they resemble star cross’d lovers, dashing from room to room avoiding the inevitable onset of sleep.

There were two minor things I didn’t understand. Firstly, while most of the medical characters were plot-functional, I couldn’t fathom the Patrick character. I couldn’t see what his point was, other than to assist Elijah Wood to de-typecast from a furry little hobbit. Query, though, whether “oily little creep” is the sort of type he really wants to be moving into. Secondly, unless I misheard, at one point Joel Barish was referred to as “still Mrs. Carrey’s little boy”. Was this a continuity error, or simply a playful bit of screenwriting from Mr Kaufman?

I suspect we will never know.

Beautifully shot and imaginatively staged, this one is definitely a keeper.

Director: Michel Gondry
Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson
Runtime: 108 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★★

3 Comments
  1. Miguel Rosa says

    I think it’s one of the most genuinely intimate and humane love stories I’ve ever seen in cinema. The movie is just made of concentrated heartbreak.

  2. Kevin Matthews says

    Great review of a great movie. It’s a shame that Michel Gondry hasn’t found any other material to really make the most of his style as I loved his music videos and his ability to create such dreamy moments (The Science Of Sleep was hugely disappointing IMO and Be Kind, Rewind was so-so).

  3. Chris Knipp says

    I think this one is looking like Gondry’s masterpiece.

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