Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind first published by Movie Gazette

As a screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman is nothing if not consistent. His Being John Malkovich (1999) spins an absurdly logical yarn from a portal which enables people temporarily to enter Malkovich’s mind; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) is based on Chuck Barris’ half-fictionalised ‘memoirs’ of his double-life, both as the gawky nebbish who invented various influential TV shows (like The Dating Game and The Gong Show), and as a suave covert assassin for the CIA; Adaptation is about a neurotic, over-intellectual scriptwriter called Charlie Kaufman helped by his more outgoing, vulgar identical twin to overcome his writer’s block and transform Susan Orlean’s difficult non-fiction book The Orchid Thief into a quirky, but commercially viable film (called Adaptation). In other words, Kaufman rarely strays from issues of mind, identity and imagination – and it comes as little surprise that these are also prominent themes in his latest film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Fortunately Kaufman’s screenplays are consistent not only in theme, but also in quality, and Eternal Sunshine…, with its inventive genius and leftfield whimsy, is no exception. When Joel (Jim Carrey) learns that Clementine (Kate Winslet), his girlfriend of two years, has become so upset by their souring relationship that she has had all memory of him erased by a company called Lacuna, Joel decides in turn to have all traces of her removed from his mind. Yet as Joel lies asleep, hooked up to the mind-wiping apparatus which locates and destroys his recollections of life with Clementine in reverse order, Joel’s subconscious trip down memory lane makes him realise just how much he wants to preserve Clementine there – and so he embarks on a desperate attempt to hide Clementine in the parts of his head where Lacuna’s machine is least likely to look.

Most of the film’s action takes place inside Joel’s rapidly disintegrating brain (brilliantly realised by director Michel Gondry, who allows his deconstructive sets to fall apart) – but scenes of the professional, and not so professional, lives of the Lacuna staff are intercut to prevent things becoming too solipsistic. Technician Patrick (Elijah Wood) unethically steals old lines from Joel’s memory to woo Clementine – and while the giddy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) may be messing around with technician Stan (Mark Ruffalo), nothing can suppress her crush on Dr Howard Mierzwiack (Tom Wilkinson). These scenes, however, far from being a mere distraction from Joel’s traumatic headtrip, reflect and refract key motifs about love, chemistry, memory and repetition, in a film whose ingeniously warped structure and chronology only become fully apparent by the end. 

As with Being John Malkovich, Kaufman takes a wild science-fiction concept, and weaves from it a tragicomedy of flaws, foibles and follies which are all too human. While there are more than enough brain-twisting complications to strain the memory of anyone who tries to replay the film’s narrative in the mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is ultimately a sentimental romance – but never cloyingly so thanks to a mood of melancholy which none of the madcap mindgames ever quite manages to erase. 

strap: An inventive headtrip cum melancholic romance which sticks in the mind. 

Anton Bitel