Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is a strange hybrid. A romantic comedy-drama science-fiction film, it blends sci-fi elements with those of a psychological thriller, and a nonlinear narrative, to explore the nature of memory and romantic love.
The title was taken from the poem Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope, the story of a tragic love affair, where forgetfulness becomes the heroine’s only comfort:
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry worked on the story with Pierre Bismuth, a French performance artist. The helmer lined up a strong ensemble cast that included Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson.
Shy Joel Barish (Carrey) meets free-spirited Clementine (Winslet) and they start a rocky relationship. One day she seems not to recognise him and Barish discovers that she has visited Lacuna Inc. and had all memories of him wiped. An angry Joel decides to undergo the same procedure, but begins having second thoughts…
Charlie Kaufman was previously seen as a peerless ideas man, who had a problem with endings. This opinion stemmed from his previous screenplays, for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation – both films with tremendous concepts that ended without conviction. With Eternal Sunshine, however, he proved the naysayers wrong, with a film that, ironically, is at its strongest in a terrific third act.
Carrey surprised many by keeping his famous comic id (and his equally renowned ego) on a tight leash, demonstrating his dramatic abilities with his most interior, least expressive role to date. Indeed, the film is not the headlong rush of ideas that its high-concept pitch might have you believe. In fact, once the story gets going, the majority of the action takes place over one night in one small room and inside one man’s rapidly disintegrating memory.
Part fever dream and part chamber piece, it takes a long time before any sunshine at all breaks into what is a melancholic and occasionally bitter first half. However, once Joel’s subconscious decides that the procedure is a bad idea and enlists the ‘memory’ of Clementine in a daring escape plan, the movie picks up the pace and starts to explore comic areas – teenage humiliation, suppressed trauma – that play to Carrey’s obvious strengths and showcase the undoubted visual verve of Gondry – the dazzling editing alone demands repeat viewings to unscramble.
As Joel’s situation becomes more hopeless, the tone miraculously becomes more hopeful, journeying right back to the first, deeply romantic days with Clementine. All at once, Kaufman’s master plan comes into focus, with the true purpose of the Lacuna technical team revealed with an unexpected reversal. A final, bittersweet coda seals the deal, as the memories of darkness past can never be entirely erased.
Perhaps no movie since Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) has better captured the entire arc of a relationship – and even Allen stopped short of presenting the beginning and the end at the exact same time. Some people may find this tough going, but this weird and wonderful piece has depth, intelligence and a rare heart.