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Nik Huggins

Published April 30th, 2004 | by Nik Huggins

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Review

Classification: 15 Director: Michel Gondry Rating: 3.5/5

Another wordy title and another insane collaboration between a music video virtuoso and cinema’s most unconventional screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, who’s gleefully disfigured world-view has given birth to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a drama about losing memories and finding them again that proves to be another deranged and delightful piece of contemporary cinema.

This time the filmmaker is not Kaufman’s long time co-conspirator Spike Jonze, but Michel Gondry, a French promos and commercials director who cut his teeth with such artists as Bjork, Radiohead and The White Stripes. The pair collaborated previously on the apetale Human Nature, Gondry’s feature film debut.

Three years in the making, because Kaufman had to continually sideline the project to pay the bills with more commercial ventures (he still came out with Adaptation and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind!?!?) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poses the question: what would happen if you could erase someone from your memory? As always with Kaufman’s outthere approach to screenwriting it is essential to pack up your disbelief and leave it in the foyer. The film is essentially a love story told in reverse, beginning with the break up and ending with the first date. Taciturn loner Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) discovers that after the recent break-up of their relationship his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet with multicoloured hair) took the drastic step of having her memories of their time together erased. Naturally dismayed, but more than a little curious about this pioneering new development in medical science (that’s the part that requires you to suspend your disbelief if you hadn’t already cottoned on) and still full of spite, Joel goes in for a bit of petty tit for tat and resolves to endure the treatment himself.

This is where the associations with Total Recall effectively end. As Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his team go to work on Joel the content of his mind, or at least the parts that are infected with a memory of Clementine, is laid bare but not easily removed. Joel relives his days with Clementine in his memories, beginning with the most recent, whilst his body lies in bed comatose under the charge of Dr Mierzwiak’s two hapless assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood). As Joel begins to see why he fell for Clem in the first place, the busy bees that buzz around his body begin to reveal some of their own tangled dysfunctionality.

ESOTSM is one of those films that has you leaving the cinema surging with joy at the complexity of it all, more than a little overwhelmed, full of questions and yearning for more. It’s high concept taken to the nth degree and injected with genuine warmth and a fair dose of darkness; it’s a romantic comedy with mind-expanding aspirations. Kaufman again underlines his status as a singularly innovative screenwriter in a place where innovation seems to be a dirty word. His characters are traced with sensitivity, his dialogue is snappy and poignant and his structure is… well, so convoluted that it’s not worth worrying about. He cleverly masks the debate over whether he can write a satisfying third act by reversing the narrative. By the time your head has stopped spinning from the sheer richness of it all you don’t care anymore.

As director, Michel Gondry does more than enough to stoke up the fires Kaufman has lit. His exceptional ability to manipulate screen space is the essential ingredient that sauces ESOTSM up. Through a skilful combination of innovative set design and camera trickery Gondry puts the viewer in his protagonists’ shoes like no other film has ever done before, in fact through being in Joel Barish’s shoes you are essentially traipsing all over his brain! The transitions between scenes, that is between Joel’s’ memories, take place organically, gaining an increasingly frenetic pace as he attempts to manipulate the erasing procedure from inside his own mind (he quickly decides that there are some memories he’d rather keep). The action constantly shifts back and forth between many of the same scenarios, each time viewed from a different angle and thus providing an enhanced meaning. As the pieces of their relationship are moulded back together in the glue of Joel’s cerebral cortex, the details become increasingly important and the story unfolds. The resulting dreamscape that is created is a visually astounding way of exploring the formal boundaries of time and space onscreen, and provides a suitably perplexing compliment to Kaufman’s demented script.

The fantastical conceit at the heart of ESOTSM envelopes an effective drama about relationships. There is enough emotional content, delivered through some touching performances, to win hearts and enough complexity to confuse minds.
So, if you’re looking to blank someone out of your life, this engaging and ultimately optimistic film might make you think twice. It’s fine to wipe their number from your phone, stop replying to their e mails or even consider a court-endorsed restraining order if things turn nasty, but if you delve back into your memories you might just re-discover why you liked them in the first place.

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