Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as unlikely lovers in a new film by Michel Gondry.
Following his critically acclaimed debut movie, Being John Malkovich, the sophomore slump kicked in for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Human Nature (directed by Michel Gondry), Adaptation (directed by Spike Jonze), and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooneys directorial debut, based on the allegedly factual memoirs of Gong Show host Chuck Barris career as a CIA hit man) were clever, but a bit soulless. In particular, Adaptation wittily depicted creative frustration only to wind up in a self-referential hall of mirrors. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, also directed by Gondry, changes all that, in a story that has a lot of heart. Eternal Sunshine brings to mind the work of French director Alain Resnais, perhaps best known for his 1955 Holocaust documentary Night and Fog. Kaufman and Gondrys film shares Resnais fascination with the byways of memory and the infinite possibilities of the editing room.
Resnais subjects included some of the 20th centurys major tragedies. Eternal Sunshine has a far more limited set of interests, but those include the willingness to dig deep into reverie, even at the risk of narrative confusion. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meet twice, first before the opening credits, the second time well into the film. Depressed about Valentines Day coming up, Joel takes the Long Island Rail Road out to Montauk. There he meets a blue-haired woman, Clementine, in a coffee shop. She makes the first move, striking up a conversation on the train back. They wind up going home together.
Joels friend shows him a card from a company called Lacuna, Inc., but requests that Joel not mention his name to Clementine. We learn that both Clementine and Joel were customers, the company, which erases ones memories of a particular person.
Joels and Clementines relationship forms the prologue and epilogue to the films real meat: the night in which Joels memories are wiped from his mind, while technicians from Lacuna drink beer, smoke pot, and dance in their underwear. This non-narrative sequence lasts about an hour. In it, Joel decides that he wants to remember Clementine after all. He recalls happy times, but arguments and tense moments pop up as well. Their attraction to each other is obvious, but so are the reasons they couldnt stay together.
Clementine keeps recurring in Joels memories, even when he recalls his childhood. The love storys details are gradually filled in, often through repetition. Time is as fluid as water, a frequent image in the film. This approach perfectly captures Joels hallucinatory agitation.
Gondrys reputation rests far more on his music videos than on Human Nature. Hes shown a gift for technical gimmickry, both low-tech and computer-generatedthe Lego animation of the rock band White Stripes Fell In Love With A Girl, the kaleidoscopic perspectives of the Chemical Brothers Let Forever Be, to name a few examplesas well as a delight in kinetic motion. His video for Daft Punks Around The World is as exhilarating as any musical number from Singing in the Rain or Busby Berkeley movies.
Eternal Sunshine tones down the visual flash, but it shares the directors anti-realist delight in manipulating imagery. In this case, Gondry subtracts: in Joels dream, objects and people keep disappearing. In his videos, such images are usually joyful, but here, Gondry makes them terrifying.
He and Carrey have a knack for capturing low-level depression. Carreys acting hasnt particularly impressed me since he decided that he wanted to get serious and prove that he wasnt simply a clown. (His choice of projects hasnt helped.) But here he gives a subdued performance here that eschews shtick and Oscar-baiting self-consciousness.
Ellen Kuras cinematography captures the chill of a New York winter. A technician aptly describes Joels apartment as a stale-smelling dump. Kuras and Gondry make sure that one can almost smell the dirty laundry. The deliberate dinginess of the opening scenes makes way for a brighter palette to match the wider range of settings in the movies central section.
Eternal Sunshine is science fiction without the usual bells and whistles. The technology behind Lacuna is taken for granted, and it addresses one of the genres frequent questions. What would happen if one could travel back in time? Not physically, in this case, but mentally. Joel and Clementine were meant to be togetherand meant to come apart. Trying to change the course of time is a fools game.
Eternal Sunshine wrings pathos out of their troubled relationship, winding down into a melancholy affirmation of fate. Joel and Clementine are happy for the moment, but its anyones guess how long that will last. Nevertheless, that rush of joy and discovery is enough to justify all the pain they put themselves through.