Why don't we take off alone,
Take a trip far, far away,
We'll be together on our own again,
Like we used to in the early days...
It's like we both are falling in love again,
It'll be just like starting over...
—"(Just Like) Starting Over," John Lennon
The mind-twiddling contortions of science-fantasy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will likely set you to arguing with yourself (and perhaps, your date). A more elegaic variation on the comically reckless Being John Malkovich (which was also written by post-postmodern screenwriter Charlie Kaufman), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is undoubtedly the most neurotic romantic comedy ever made; as such, Kaufman has forged an awesomely sharp double-edged sword. Kaufman's clear-eyed appraisal of romantic friction slices one way, and his warts-and-all faith in humanity cuts the other. Is this enigmatic vision a blissful affirmation of irrepressible love or, after all, cynicism wrapped in romanticism?
Jim Carrey plays Joel, a New York cartoonist who one day discovers that his recent "ex" Clementine (Kate Winslet) has added injury to insult and memory-dumped him. That is to say, she has enlisted the services of Lacuna, a company which helps people to forget lost loves and, therefore, to forget their pain. After encountering the memory-wiped Clem, Joel decides that turnabout is his best revenge: with the help of Lacuna technicians, he will commit her remains to the great hereafter. Clutching a couple of Glad bags filled with every significant object of their relationship, Joel storms into Lacuna's offices, where Tom Wilkinson's avuncular head doctor waves off Joel's concerns about brain damage: "Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage."
Before we know it, we're on a Fantastic Voyage through Joel's memories and, therefore, perceptions. When Joel's subconscious gets cold feet and attempts to hide his lover from Lacuna's mind-wiping staffers, Joel's self-images of him and Clementine endearingly conspire to save their love. Dashing through blissful romantic moments (including a courtship on actual thin ice), childhood wonders, and adult humiliations, Joel and Clem clasp hands and rage against the dying of their light. The film's title hails, forebodingly, from Alexander Pope's 1717 poem "Eloisa to Abelard," in which a heroine sings of her catastrophic love, "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..."
Kaufman scripts tortured voice-over musings for Joel ("Why do I always fall in love with every woman who shows me the least bit of attention?") and withering bon mots for his moody muse Clem ("Constant talking isn't necessarily communicating"). While Carrey mopes and yelps cathartically, an astringently funny trio (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood) ministers menacingly to his brain; their reckless indifference to Joel turns to self-interested panic when the process hits a snag. Before and after Joel's procedure, each character feels the repercussions of the brain-drain technology, always in surprising ways. Dunst's dope-smoking brain-tech resembles her remark about Joel's fine mess of fearful hesitancy and regret: "Adults are like this mess of sadness and phobias."
Infamous music-video director Michel Gondry stumbled in his 2001 feature debut Human Nature (another Kaufman screenplay), but armed with a stronger script, Gondry finds a tentative footing which compliments the story's lack of equilibrium. Using mostly handheld camera and understated effects both practical and special, the director fragments time, space, image, and sound to approximate Joel's grey subjective "reality." Scenes come apart around the actors: in one scene, fluorescent lights flick off in a wave behind Joel as he strides magically from a Barnes and Noble into a friend's apartment; in another, bystanders blip out of existence as Joel and Clem race across a Grand Central Station recollection.
Joel's head, lest we forget, introduces us to a fairly convincing yet inherently unreliable version of Clementine: this is the woman as the man perceives her. Winslet bobs and weaves through an actor's obstacle course with a high-level of difficulty: free-spirited meet-cute scenes and end-of-their-world crying jags in the real world give way to sensitive head-game scenarios; almost every scene is a duet with Carrey's reactive sad sack. That we spend so much more time with the dream-projected Clem than the real one makes the film problematic but also plays into the film's fetching ambiguity.
Against our better judgment, we might read the couple's long goodbye as a metaphysical miracle bonding Joel's subconscious to an acquiescent, lost-spirit Clementine. But such wishful thinking is a pretty big leap; more likely, any real-life reconciliation between Joel and Clementine has about as good a chance a second time as it did the first. Perhaps, then, Gondry's film is about the attitudinal correction (simply, carpe diem gratitude) which buys the coveted second chance, or perhaps it is an exposé of deluded, solipsistic, romantic idealism. Either way, this imaginative mindbender has hid in my memory and tenaciously resists expulsion.