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ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Don't expect anything standard-issue from this uniquely funny, unpredictably tender and unapologetically twisted romance. Jim Carrey, dropping the goofy faces, has never done anything this deeply felt. The brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), often accused of an excess of cleverness, plumbs new emotional depths. And visionary director Michel Gondry, whose music-video flash for the likes of Bjork, Radiohead and the White Stripes kept his 2001 collaboration with Kaufman in Human Nature on a showoff level, reveals a bracing maturity in his commitment to character. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind chases so many ideas that it threatens to spin out of control. But with our multiplexes stuffed with toxic Hollywood formula, it's a gift to find a ballsy movie that thinks it can do anything, and damn near does.
Carrey stars as Joel Barish, a weary Manhattan wage slave who wakes up one winter morning, calls in sick and takes a train out to a beach in Montauk, on Long Island. Something draws him there; maybe the same thing that draws him to Clementine Kruczynski (a never-better Kate Winslet), a free spirit with dyed blue hair -- she calls it "Blue Ruin" -- whom he meets on the train home. These polar opposites feel a connection they can't explain.
So Kaufman gradually fills us in. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Joel and Clementine have both had all memories of their two-year relationship erased. She had the process done first, having seen a TV ad for a company called Lacuna in which Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (the invaluable Tom Wilkinson) asks, "Why remember a destructive love affair?" Joel, hurt by her actions, follows suit. In his apartment, on the night before the train trip, Dr. Mierzwiak's assistants Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) attach the weird headgear and zap the recollections one by one, the most recent first. It's a botch job, mostly because Patrick splits to make a play for Clementine (he has stolen Joel's memories), and Stan and Mary strip down to get stoned and boogie.
No matter. The core of the movie is what's going on in Joel's head. And it's here that the filmmakers lavish their most creative and insightful notions. As Joel struggles to hold on to the memories of the woman he truly loves, Kaufman and Gondry grapple with the concept of memory itself and how it defines our lives. This is heady stuff -- gorgeously shot by Ellen Kuras -- that might fly off the handle into meta-hot air were it not for the grounded and groundbreaking performances of Carrey and Winslet. Never once do we doubt the bond that holds these embattled lovers despite their crippling flaws. He's recessive to the point of inertia. She's impulsive, with moods that change as frequently as the color of her hair -- the dyes range from blue to green to red mist. They're always hitting a wall. "Just because you talk constantly doesn't mean you're communicating," says Joel.
Carrey burrows far inside the emotionally withdrawn Joel until we see the soul worth saving. And Winslet, one of the best actresses anywhere, is electrifying and bruisingly vulnerable. All the actors have shining moments. Wood, eons away from Frodo, gets creepy laughs but also measures the loss of leading a stolen life. Dunst brings a wounded dignity to Mary's betrayed trust in Mierzwiak, enhanced by the dark melancholy Wilkinson invests in the role. And Ruffalo proves again that he can find dramatic nuance in the corners of comedy. When Mary asks Stan how she looked with Mierzwiak when she first developed a crush on the doc, he takes a beat. "You looked happy," he says, "with a secret."
Unlocking secrets is part of the richness of a fantasy film that grows increasingly real. Even the lyrics of the silly song that bears Clementine's name -- "lost and gone forever" -- take on a poignant resonance as Joel fights to keep Clementine in his head, forcing memories of her into his childhood, where she never played a part. Kaufman, Gondry and the pitch-perfect actors have crafted a remarkable film that can coax a smile about making the same mistakes in love and then sneak up and quietly break your heart.
I had felt for a long time leading up to seeing this film that I was going to love it. I'm not one hundred percent sure why. Perhaps it was because I knew it was written by Charlie Kaufman, the man behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both of which I loved. Perhaps it was because I knew Kate Winslet's character had the same name as my first ever crush, and a similar affinity to bright colours. Perhaps it was because of the geekishly cool trailer music - I don't know. But I do know this: I wasn't wrong.
Eternal Sunshine has proved something about Charlie Kaufman. It was already widely accepted that he was a genius, demonstrated by his ability to tie our brains in knots with his screenplays, namely Being John Malkovich. But it is now clear that he has a heart too.
This is the most touching, intimate and moving film of the year so far. From the opening scenes in which Joel and Clementine meet and fall in love, through to the very last shot, the film retains a sense of wonder in the relationship of the two leads. The moments of joyful affection are constantly juxtaposed with moments of anger and resentment, making them all the more wonderful. And similarly to Lost In Translation, which I reviewed earlier this year, this is a film which shows us that the leads are in love without having to show seduction or sex - a beautiful rarity in new films these days. Enough are simple moments like Joel and Clementine lying side by side on a frozen lake, and a line that, I feel, perfectly sums up the emotion of being alone and carefree with someone you have the greatest affection for - "I could die right now, Clem. I'm just... happy. I'm just exactly where I want to be."
It is of further tribute to the heart of Eternal Sunshine that it maintains itself throughout the classic Kaufman mindbending and Gondry's music-video-veteran style direction, two aspects of this film also worthy of great accolades.
On leaving the cinema, in conversation with my good friend Patrick, we came to the subject of the twists in the film. "Well, there were three" I said. Patrick agreed. I commented on the first one. "Oh, that one!" he answered, " I was thinking of ........". In summation, whoever you are, this film will keep you gripped from start to finish. The screenplay is simply fantastic, and Kaufman and Gondry are the perfect partnership, considering the abstract tendencies of each in their respective fields.
Jim Carrey delivers the best performance of his career, and shows that he is ready to make the transition from the rubber-faced comic of The Mask and Ace Ventura to more mature pastures. After this, anyone who casts doubt over Carrey's fundamental acting ability will be ridiculed. The only unfortunate side to this is that it makes his outing in Bruce Almighty look even worse. Kate Winslet is wonderful, both in her acting and the way she comes across as slightly eccentric and completely lovable. Not since Scarlett Johansson in Lost In Translation have I felt so enamoured by a character.
The ensemble, in spite of living in the shadows of Joel and Clementine's sunshine, still manage to shine in their own ways. Kirsten Dunst manages to portray innocent, obsessed, excitable and irresponsible all at the same time. Mark Ruffalo simply fits the part of the computer geek scientist perfectly. Elijah Wood is a revelation. In spite of my being a self-confessed Lord of the Rings obsessive, I did not think for a single moment of this film - what is Frodo doing here? He was my favourite out of the four supporting roles. Wilkinson also stood out with a performance which, while overall straight, was mildly quirky at the same time.
Finally, John Brion's original music for Eternal Sunshine is like the audience's surfboard, on which we ride the ocean of this emotional, visual, and completely and utterly beautiful spectacle.
In conclusion, an unmissable experience, for not just "anyone who has a memory they would rather forget", as the advertising campaign says, but for anyone who loves films, or loves love.