Lacuna Inc., the memory-erasure outfit that furnishes the premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, would be of obvious benefit to movie critics. I wouldn’t mind, for instance, forgetting that I ever saw BloodRayne. At the other extreme, it might be fun to eradicate the memories of my favorite films, so that I could experience them fresh all over again. (Which would raise the question of how the 33-year-old me would respond to the Indiana Jones movies — would I love Raiders as much seeing it for the first time today as I did when I was eleven?) On a more serious note, there are experiences and people in our pasts we may wish we could forget. But we are built on the sum of our pasts — our failures as well as our successes, our pain as well as our pleasure.
Eternal Sunshine ponders the meaning and impact of memory, and grounds it in a romantic fable. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who devised the story with Pierre Bismuth and director Michel Gondry, usually specializes in being too hip for the room — or the mainstream room, anyway (see Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). But underneath the hip, heady exterior beats a heart that yearns to understand the heart’s vicissitudes. Your typical Kaufman protagonist is driven round the bend by insecurity versus passion — the head versus the heart.
In Eternal Sunshine, Jim Carrey dials himself down to the ground as Joel Barish, a near-anonymous drone (the script barely specifies what he does for a living) who discovers that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has visited Lacuna and had all her memories of Joel swept away clean. Carrey, photographed to emphasize his haggard grief and stubble, gives a performance of almost unnerving intensity as a man dealing with the notion of having been erased. If a shared memory dies in one person, where does that leave the person who still has it? In a fit of rage and spite, Joel barges into the Lacuna offices and demands the procedure himself. Lacuna’s founder and guru, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), agrees to wipe Joel’s Clementine memories.
The remainder of the movie — occasionally interrupted by scenes with Mierzwiak’s assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), whose duty it is to de-Clementine Joel, and Lacuna secretary Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who’s going out with Stan — is given over to Joel’s inner journey through a world of disintegrating memories. I assume that most of Lacuna’s clientele had an easier time with the memory dump than Joel does. For whatever reason, though he’s supposed to be obliviously asleep through the night-long process, Joel — or Joel’s memory-self — begins to regret his decision, and he clings desperately to each memory even as it fades and disassembles around him. He reaches one beautiful memory of a time when things were good with Clementine, and he doesn’t want to let it go. So he and the memory-Clementine become fugitives from the ruthless Lacuna computer as it systematically locates and destroys each bit of the brain that houses a Clementine memory. Within Joel’s brain, the lovers go on the run, hiding inside memories that have nothing to do with Clementine, especially embarrassing or painful buried memories. This conceptual comedy has moments of cerebral horror and despair, like Philip K. Dick adapted by David Cronenberg.
Michel Gondry is an internationally acclaimed music-video director (much like Spike Jonze, who helmed two Kaufman movies). His previous feature, also written by Kaufman, was Human Nature, also rooted in the head-slam between love and science. It was too self-consciously farcical, though — maybe an attempt by two unconventional creators to prove they could make a sloppy physical comedy — and it ended up missing both the brain and the funnybone. As of now, it can be seen as a dry run for Eternal Sunshine, in which Gondry, whose work in Human Nature was rather impersonal, de-slicks his style and serves the material. Gondry’s use of CGI here reminds you of what special effects can do in a movie with real imagination. Some of this stuff, with background objects quietly blinking out or decaying memories of faceless people, is uniquely weird and upsetting.
The motor of the movie is Joel’s quest to preserve Clementine in his memory, so if we don’t agree with him that she’s worth holding onto, the film perishes. But in the vivacious person of Kate Winslet, Clementine is realistically exasperating yet compelling — a joie-de-vivre girl who drives a man nuts yet also pushes him to live more fully. Given time, a non-Lacuna-ized Joel might come to think back on Clementine fondly, or at least acknowledge the ways he grew under her care. But a man rejected and erased is not one to take the long view, and Joel at first jumps at the chance to clear the bitch out of his head. But his mistake, as you notice when you mull it over later, is that he’s erasing Clementine not because he’s tortured by memories of her but because he wants to get back at her.
Dr. Mierzwiak commits to Joel’s procedure anyway, out of guilt and fear — Joel has found out about his own erasure, and that’s not supposed to happen. If word got out, it could mean the destruction of everything Lacuna has accomplished. Mierzwiak thinks he’s doing great work, but he’s only providing a quick fix for pain. Instead of giving people the tools to process hurtful memories and move on, he just whisks the past away with a keystroke. In Joel’s case, the past includes memory of Lacuna. And we also find the sleazy little Patrick — and Mierzwiak himself — capitalizing on memory erasure for their own gain or convenience. It’s mind-rape in reverse — drawing out poison instead of injecting it. But that poison could also be the irritating grain of sand that produces an eventual pearl of wisdom. We remember pain so that we know what hurts; we remember mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.
Eternal Sunshine is a wild tangle of emotion and thought, but one thing it isn’t, particularly, is funny. I don’t mean that as a criticism (although there are some fine, goofy moments from the supporting cast, especially the stoned Ruffalo and Dunst, and Joel’s childhood memory incorporating Clementine as a go-go babysitter is memorably off-the-wall). It was marketed as a zany Jim Carrey movie, of course, with the trailer using quite a bit of loopy footage I looked in vain for in the movie. Carrey’s scream in the trailer (when he’s got the memory-wipe headpiece on) is used as a laugh beat; in the movie it’s distorted in response to a genuinely distressing strobe of disorienting images.
Kaufman and Gondry bring out all the weirdness of the premise, sometimes eliciting disbelieving laughter, sometimes taking us to odd, chilly places (a scene involving the young Joel and a bird is a sad, harsh bit of business). At times, the film hits the notes that The Butterfly Effect haplessly aimed for — the notion that things happen for a reason, and that the past shouldn’t be rewritten even if you can. Since all we have of the past is memory, and since memory makes us who we are, to alter it is to shake the very foundations of self. The movie also effortlessly considers the interconnectedness of memories — if you erase your hated ex, you also wipe out everything you were and did during the time with him or her; the good vanishes along with the bad, and what you’re left with is an artificially induced void.
At the end, and at the beginning (the structure is kind of fancy), we see Joel and Clementine meeting for the first time. The real climax of Eternal Sunshine focuses on how Joel and Clementine — in the real world, not in Joel’s memory-world — deal with what they’ve done. Will they deal with it? Or is the film an infinite loop? Among other things, the movie is an essay on destiny versus will. If two people are meant to be together, the film seems to say, no amount of memory cleansing is going to keep them apart. It’s handled far more provocatively here than in the genial but unimaginative 50 First Dates, which also hinged on memory loss. Charlie Kaufman likes to begin with an outlandish premise and then burrow inside the characters to see how the premise affects them. He deals in the comedy of flawed perception, and it needs just the right rough-hewn directorial touch (George Clooney’s rather slick and icy direction of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ran contrary to Kaufman’s intent) — a first-draft shakiness, which can only be successfully accomplished by the truly gifted. Eternal Sunshine‘s stylistic primitivism works in accord with the script’s sophistication, as if the very film itself, like Joel’s memories, were about to tremble and fade away. This movie joins Kaufman’s best work in its maddening yet satisfying ability to stay with you and hound you for further answers; in that respect, Kaufman’s movies are our own Clementines.