Many fans of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004) love it fiercely; they've watched it repeatedly, committing certain scenes to memory (ha!) and getting emotionally involved every time. It's that kind of movie.
This was director Michel Gondry's second collab with writer Charlie Kaufman, the first being 'Human Nature' (2001), an uneven, intriguingly odd comedy. (Prior to that, he was known mainly for wonderfully innovative music videos.) Pre-'Eternal Sunshine,' Kaufman had already scored bigtime with screenplays for 'Being John Malkovich,' 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' and 'Adaptation.' An inspired, multi-layered melding of dark, whimsical sci-fi and equally fantastical visuals, 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is the most haunting, romantic film to come from either filmmaker.
With 'The Green Hornet' -- Gondry's first foray into big-budget superhero action -- opening Friday, we have the perfect excuse to look back at what is arguably his best film to date.
The story: Polar opposites Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) -- she's impulsive and outspoken; he's cautious and withdrawn -- meet, fall in love, bicker and break up, very much like actual people (as opposed to movie people). Carrey and Winslet are perfect in their roles; his performance is unexpectedly low-key and affecting, hers a precise portrayal of a familiar type of brash yet vulnerable young woman. They're a realistically messy couple.
We first see Joel and Clem meet on the railroad en route home from Montauk, where they have individually and inexplicably wound up on a winter day. Awkwardly, they begin a relationship. We then jump to the aftermath of their break-up, when a distraught Joel finds out that Clementine has erased him via a company called Lacuna. For a fee, Lacuna can destroy all memories of a particular person -- and of the erasure itself -- so that the aggrieved party can get on with life.
Joel decides to do the same and meets with Lacuna head Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who tells his concerned client, "Technically what we're doing is brain damage ... but on par with a heavy night of drinking," nothing he'll miss.
During the procedure, administered by technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and the easily distracted Patrick (Elijah Wood), Joel has a change of heart. While unconscious, he re-lives memories of Clem as they're being erased and realizes he doesn't want to forget her. Fighting to wake up, he's simultaneously in his memories and aware of undergoing the procedure; how Gondry shows this -- a shadowy world in which disembodied voices are heard and things keep disappearing -- is surreal and fascinatingly complex. Similarly, the movie's timeline jumps all over the place, like much of what's occurring in its protagonist's head.
Still unconscious, Joel tries to hold on to Clementine by escaping -- literally running away from his memories as they're being destroyed; finally she suggests that he "hide" her someplace she doesn't belong, and he thinks back to childhood:
As Joel resists the procedure, his connection with Lacuna's equipment keeps failing, helped in part by Stan, who has gotten high with the company's receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst). Howard's called in to fix the problem. Meanwhile, real-time Clem is having some sort of breakdown ("I feel like I'm disappearing"), and can't be comforted by her new beau Patrick -- who fell for her while erasing her memories. She of course remembers none of that.
Back in Joel's head, everything's been erased except the last memory of Clem, the day they first met. During this scene, at a deserted Montauk beach house, they re-live their conversation from that day and comment on it, knowing that this will be the last time they ever see each other. Joel seems resigned, but the ever-resourceful Clem suggests changing the memory:
It's a beautiful, melancholy scene, both for the realistic emotions being expressed and the evocative visuals –- the wind, the nighttime beach, the house collapsing around them.
Later, Joel and Clem find out about their respective procedures, due to a twist concerning Mary's past. Though upset and confused -- and as discordant as ever -- they come to terms with it, and the movie ends on a hopeful note.
Gondry would go on to write and direct the wonderfully fanciful 'Science of Sleep' and silly but fun 'Be Kind Rewind,' in addition to helming the fantastic 'Block Party' doc; and Kaufman would later write and direct the poignant, challenging 'Synecdoche, New York.' 'Eternal Sunshine,' however, remains unmatched, a perfect marriage of style and substance.