Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry film. It manages to be both funny and poignant, and to feel fresh even though it’s recycling some fairly hoary chestnuts of romantic comedy. As you’d expect from Charlie Kaufman, form trumps content, in a cleverly self-referential way. But to call the film “clever” is a bit unfair; such a characterization doesn’t do justice to the way its affect is simultaneously goofy and heartfelt.
It’s hard to talk about the film without, to some extent, giving it away. It’s not that the plot contains any real surprises, once you accept its outrageous premise. But the manner of presentation is frequently surprising.
The premise is a technology that allows you to selectively erase your memories. You can forget everything about an unhappy love affair, forget even the other person’s existence, with nothing else being affected. As presented in the film, this technology is hilariously sleazy and tacky — it’s done overnight in your bedroom, while you sleep, and the techs party, have sex, and drink up all your liquor, while they are supposedly monitoring the state of your brain on their laptops. (They chase down emotional memories that pop out in green from an MRI scan photo on the computer, as if they were killing enemies in a computer game).
So, Jim Carrey (pitch-perfect: unusually subdued, rather morose in fact, but also without the heavyhanded seriousness of his previous efforts to “act” in films like The Truman Show) and Kate Winslet (manic and overbearing, but engagingly and believably so) are a couple who break up: they love each other, but also get on each other’s nerves and wear themselves down through constant bickering. One day, after walking out on Jim, Kate has her memories of him wiped. When Jim finds out about this, he is distraught; he decides he needs to get his memories of her wiped as well. Most of the movie takes place in Jim’s brain, while he’s asleep, and the techs are giving his brain a washing. In the middle of it all, Jim changes his mind: he doesn’t want to forget Kate after all. He runs with her through memory after memory, trying to evade the relentless process of erasure. Hilarity ensues, as well as non-linear narrative hijinks.
So the narrative is scrambled; and it changes before our eyes, since truth is always a function of — always subject to — the vagaries of memory and desire. It’s not that it’s hard to follow: Kaufman isn’t interested in luring us into trying to solve a puzzle, the way Christopher Nolan does in Memento. Much more interestingly, the non-linearity of Eternal Sunshine allows Kaufman to link memories (plot events) associatively, like music, developing themes, repeating with variations, changing the feel of a scene by undermining and altering its context. This, together with Gondry’s quicksilver direction (continually varying mood through subtle visual and musical cues, plays of color and sound) is what makes the film so engaging and enthralling. Gondry uses a lot of technical tricks from his music videos, especially various sorts of visual composting; and miraculously (unlike what usually happens), they survive their transplant from the world of 3-minute videos to the vastly different world of feature films. They seem expressive, and not just gimmicky.
David Edelstein rightly compares Eternal Sunshine to the great screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 40s. But where Edelstein is referring to the way that Sunshine, like those earlier films, is what Stanley Cavell calls a “comedy of remarriage,” the most striking parallel for me is one of agility and speed. I’m thinking of the rapid-fire exchanges of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and even better the manic exchanges between Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. In those films, Howard Hawks was a slyly laid-back director, cunningly arranging camerawork and editing in order to foreground his stars, and their repartee, as effectively as possible. Though Carrey and Winslet are terrific, Gondry and Kaufman don’t rely as exclusively on dialogue as Hawks did; but Sunshine‘s conceptual and visual conceits have the same effects of density and wit through sheer velocity that the screwball comedies had through dialogue and the stars’ physical presence alone.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface here; there’s a lot more to say. But that will have to wait until the film comes out on DVD and I can watch it again, several times. Suffice it to say that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is Charlie Kaufman’s best work yet; together with Mulholland Drive and Punch Drunk Love and perhaps Lost in Translation, it’s evidence that American filmmaking is still alive, in spite of everything, in the twenty-first century.

3 Responses to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

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