Katherine (phyche_artemis) wrote,

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Imagine a sort of Botox-for-the-brain procedure, a medical technique that could erase your mental frown lines by wiping away devastating memories. Wouldn't it be wonderful to erase old emotional traumas, forget a broken heart and live unscarred by bitter experience?

Joel Barish thinks it would. Especially after Clementine Kruczynski, his girlfriend for two increasingly rocky years, erases him first. Joel visits the offices of Lacuna Inc., where soothing selective amnesia is sold, to retaliate in kind.

The procedure moves from his most recent memories to the earliest, so screaming breakups and poisonous accusations disappear first. But as the memory wipe moves back to good times, semiconscious Joel discovers tender moments he wants to retain. Unable to communicate with the technicians, he must find a way to hide Clementine in his deepest memories
The story explores its sci-fi premise with rare intelligence. The wildly innovative screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") uses the what-if of mental re-engineering for an insightful examination of the workings of the human mind and some uneasy consideration of the nature of human relationships.

Kaufman's dialogue is looser and more realistic than ever before, but Kaufman is still a mad genius of structural surprises. For very good reason, the credits don't roll until the film has played for 15 minutes. What you've seen isn't what you thought and what you get is not what you expect.

This is, despite the presence of Jim Carrey, a wise and touching movie, not an arm-waving farce. Carrey plays Joel with due seriousness, delivering his best performance ever, with scarcely a hint of Jerry Lewis clowning. Joel is a withdrawn, awkward, solitary man. He has an impressive imagination, filling his tablets with wild cartoons, but never shares them with anyone. He scarcely deals with the world until he meets Clementine, his mirror opposite.

Kate Winslet plays her as an irresponsible and aggressive child-woman, who changes her hair color like other people change their socks. Clementine has no trouble letting her craziness out, and Joel loves her, resents her and fears her for it. She's passionate, and Joel is paranoid with jealousy that she's sleeping with other men.

It's a messy, exasperating, abrasive relationship, a far cry from the rosy, preordained meeting of soul mates that is the staple of Hollywood romantic comedy. On one of their dates, Joel and Clementine lie on a frozen river beside a worrisome crack in the ice, as good a symbol of romantic impermanence as any I've seen.

The film unfolds with a dream-logic, nonlinear narrative that includes scenes both inside and outside Joel's brain, yet the plot is so well-knitted that only a lazy viewer would feel lost. You begin to sort out Joel's scrambled memories as you are drawn into his mind. Once you catch on, "Eternal Sunshine" becomes one of the deepest, most moving dramas in years.

As Joel and Clementine run from the Lacuna technique's memory-erasing process, physical reality itself crumbles around them. Street signs lose their lettering, and buildings blur and collapse. The effect isn't one of disaster-epic showmanship, but rather a macabre suggestion of what it must be like to slip into senility.

Joel's struggle isn't to defeat the technicians, who are presented as Gen X goofs, not villains. His fight is an internal one, groping toward the understanding that sacrificing to sustain an imperfect relationship is worth the pain.

Without Clementine, there is nothing erratic, unfair, unbalanced. But also, there is nothing alive, only a drab little apartment, a notebook full of sketches no one ever sees.

"Lacuna" is a Latin word that means "a missing piece," and at the end of his adventure -- or is it the beginning? -- Joel has a better understanding of what piece he truly would miss. Touching, convincing and with a haunting twist, "Eternal Sunshine" is unforgettable.
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