ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Review by David Edelstein, slate.com, 3/18/04
FORGET ME NOT
The genius of Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Memories, in the corners of his mind...
The philosopher Stanley Cavell has called the classic screwball movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and The Lady Eve (1941) "comedies of remarriage," in which couples are rudely bounced from their Edenic connubial gardens and reunited (after a series of farcical/magical contrivances) in a spirit of wry realism: This time they know they'll live bumpily ever after. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features), the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman teleports the screwball genre into the 21st century: It's The Awful Truth turned inside-out by Philip K. Dick, with nods to Samuel Beckett, Chris Marker, John Guare—the greatest dramatists of our modern fractured consciousness. But the weave is pure Kaufman. No one has ever used this fantastic a premise to chart the convolutions of the human brain in the throes of breakup and reconciliation. And no one has Kaufman's radar for emotional truth at the farthest reaches of the absurdist galaxy.
The movie opens with Joel, played by Jim Carrey in a dorky woolen cap, and Clementine, played by Kate Winslet in blue hair, meeting screwball cute on a beach at the end of Long Island in the dead of winter. He's painfully shy; she's almost equally painfully gregarious. Joel goes through the normal Kaufman self-conscious nerdy contortions, but something is different: It's almost as if they've known each other before. A short time later (or so it seems—we don't yet grasp the movie's timeline), Joel is weeping in his car, because Clementine didn't recognize him in the bookstore where she works. She was also smooching someone else. It turns out that she has had her memories of their relationship erased by a company called Lacuna Inc., run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). And, because Joel can't live in the world without Clementine, he decides to have her erased from his brain, too.
This is all tricky enough, but in the course of his visit to Lacuna, Joel has a revelation: This isn't happening; it has already happened. Two technicians, played by Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood, are actually in his apartment, beside a sofa bed on which he lies in a futuristic hair-dryer helmet: They are systematically conjuring up his memories of Clementine—including the memory of his Lacuna visit—and purging them from his mind. Later, the dweebish pair will be joined by the willowy Kirsten Dunst as the company's blithe receptionist, who's mysteriously fond of Bartlett's quotations on the subject of memory, among them the Alexander Pope lines that gives the movie its exotic title:
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd.
Joel isn't happy like that blameless vestal in his forgetting—quite the opposite. And it's here that Kaufman shows his real genius. As Joel travels back through his memories of the relationship—not the most recent ones, which come first and are nasty, but the earlier ones, the moments in which Joel and Clementine had a deep and pure connection—he remembers what he loved in her. He goes to a heartbreaking time in which she talks about her fears of being ugly as a child, and he pleads with the technicians in the heavens (who can't hear him—he's sleeping): "Please let me keep this memory." In that instant, maybe halfway through, the picture transforms into a different kind of story, in which the object is not to let go of one's memories but hang onto them, whatever the cost. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is like a topsy-turvy Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the hero must look back—and back and back—or his beloved will be lost forever.
The legendary music-video director Michel Gondry and his cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, get to strut their stuff in these sequences: their style is glancing and (literally) vaporous. In farce, the hero runs in and out of doors; here, he runs in and out of doors of perception—in and out of blurs. Joel flees with his mental Clementine to places in his life that he hasn't supplied to his memory erasers—places where she couldn't have been, like his kitchen when he was 4 years old and curled up under a kitchen table staring at a baby sitter in a short dress and white boots (now impersonated by Clementine), or the time when some bullies made him smash a dead bird with a hammer. These are wildly funny scenes—but they're scary, too, and surreal, like little body-snatcher movies. The technicians are flabbergasted. They say he's "off the map," and they hunt around his brain for his new whereabouts. And as they erase Joel's synaptic hiding places, the house of his childhood ages and crumbles before our eyes, fences blow away, faces dissolve into rubbery blanks, passersby disappear. There's a melancholy, end-of-the-world mood to the couple's final scenes in Joel's head: the blooming of their love and its obliteration, in the same instant.
I'm not convinced that Gondry is an expressively great film director—that his virtuosity is joined to his heart. But he's a gorgeous illustrator of Kaufman's inner worlds, and in its splintered syntax the movie is astoundingly fluid. The laws of time and space are constantly flouted, yet the film moves along an unbroken thread of memories—a filament that's white-hot with emotion. Like the greatest science fiction writers, Kaufman is using a bizarre futuristic scenario to tell us something about the here and now: about the loss of our most vivid loves to the impermanence of memory; and about the life we lose when, to go on living, we force ourselves to forget. In Being John Malkovich (1999), Kaufman boxed himself into a corner and the movie went sour, but here he comes up with a beautiful and searching last scene—irrational in its hopefulness yet completely convincing.
It's rarely a compliment when I refer to an actor as "straitjacketed," but the straitjacketing of Jim Carrey is fiercely poignant. You see all that manic comic energy imprisoned in this ordinary man, with the anarchism peeking out and trying to find a way to express itself. And you know instantly what he sees in Winslet's Clementine, beyond her physical beauty: she's an overdramatizer, a blurter-out of inner truths. Winslet—who's as scorching here as she was in Iris (2001)—takes a character that could be too la-di-da in the Annie Hall mode and makes her chaotic, even violent. Everything that attracts Joel to her will one day drive him mad; yet a universe without Clementine will be a blue and cold and empty place.
The leads alone would make this movie, but the supporting cast enacts a parallel drama that adds dissonances and echoes all over the place. And I've never heard a score quite like Jon Brion's, which is weirder than his work on Punch-Drunk Love. A mixture of pop songs and chamber music, it seems to be carrying on a whimsical conversation of its own in a parallel universe, with hints of calliopes and silent horror movies. The music peaks in the scene in which Dunst recites the lines from Pope and Joel has a vision of himself and Clementine on the street amid a parade of circus elephants—an exhortation, perhaps, on behalf of memory. I thought Kaufman's Adaptation (2002) was wildly overrated, but it obviously did wonders for his confidence: He has the fearlessness now to move the boundary posts of romantic comedy. This is the best movie I've seen in a decade. For once it's no hyperbole to say, "Unforgettable!"
Review by James Bowman, jamesbowman.net, 4/9/04
Here, just for the record, are the lines from Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" from which a new movie takes its title:
How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sun-shine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resigned.
Generally speaking, it has not been deemed worthy of comment by those who have written about the movie that the phrase Pope applied to the untroubled conscience of a nun—the Vestal virgin, though a pagan Roman phenomenon, was often used as a prototype for the various orders of Roman Catholic sisters like Eloisa's—is applied in the movie to a ghastly new therapeutic technique for washing out of the brain all memories of a sexual "relationship" gone bad, so that the subject, or patient, can make a completely fresh start with someone new. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with the director, Michel Gondry, must have known that the word "spotless" as used by "Pope Alexander," as the dippy Mary (Kirsten Dunst) puts it, meant "without moral stain." It had to be, then, with a certain sense of irony that they chose to make the phrase mean something quite unimaginable to Pope: namely an antiseptic consciousness unspotted with memories and so capable of living entirely in the present.
Kaufman and Gondry are agin it, by the way. What a relief! In the best tradition of the more literary sorts of science fiction—see, for instance, that recent pair of Spielbergian book-ends, Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001) and Minority Report (2002) drawn from the works of Brian Aldiss and Philip K. Dick respectively—scientists who mess with your mind invariably claim to have your best interests at heart and are invariably up to no good. But there is a moral dimension to the new film, hinted at in the quotation from Pope, that goes well beyond the ponderous pieties of A.I. and Minority Report. We've known since Frankenstein—the book, not the movie—that it is a very bad idea to play God with human life. If you remember that Mary Shelley's subtitle was "The Modern Prometheus" the lesson goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. What is less clear is the point at which therapy becomes presumption upon the divine purpose.
In other words, maybe eradicating bad memories, assuming it were possible, would be more like burning out cancerous cells than it would be like creating artificial consciousness or manipulating minds to produce guaranteed moral outcomes. Surely if Joel and Clementine, the two lovers of the film played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, have freely chosen to have their memories of each other erased they are only exercising a form of control over their own lives that we would all exercise if we could? Kaufman and Gondry's answer to this question is that it may be so, but that you can't limit the process of memory-removal to the bad and painful memories. Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) requires a complete removal of the good memories along with the bad, so that it is as if the couple has never met. A whole chunk of their lives has been simply obliterated.
As science fiction, this is cheating—I mean, assuming for the moment that all science fiction isn't cheating. Why suppose that the procedure is limited in this way? If you can imagine a doctor who can cure you of selected memories, why not just imagine him capable of making the selection a little finer and more precise? But Eternal Sunshine is not really science fiction, an exploration of possible worlds. It is, rather, a metaphor for our own world. Its most moving moment comes at the end when the hero and heroine with their freshly washed brains meet again as strangers, fall in love again and suddenly, unexpectedly discover what has been done to them—what they themselves have chosen to do. The disgruntled Mary sends them tapes of themselves in the interviews at which they asked to be relieved of the mental burdens occasioned by memories and resentments of each other just as they are about to embark on a new relationship with each other.
Listening to these tapes, both weakly insist that they cannot possibly imagine thinking such things about the terribly attractive person they now once again want to believe in. "I really like you. I hate that I said mean things about you." In this instant, therefore, they are given a double perspective on their lives. At one and the same time they can see each other as they did when love was new and when love had become swamped with anger, petty annoyances and the hurtful recriminations these things give rise to. The result is a revelation. We all know the difference between the hopeful beginning and the embittered end of a relationship. It is, in a word, trust. While we believe in the promise of happiness with another person, we overlook his faults, her shortcomings. Little things remain little things and doubts only arise for their benefits to be lavishly given. Later, when hope has been disappointed, it takes trust with it. Doubts become certainties and every fault, every rough spot and irritation grows from insignificance to such a size as to cut us off from any further hopes of happiness.
All the science of this film's science fiction is really there just to allow Joel and Clementine this moment of insight which, had we sufficient moral imagination, we all might share without any help from Dr. Mierzwiak and his black arts. In that instant the lovers see their lives sub specie aeternitatis—all at once, as we must suppose God sees them, rather than day by day, year by year, as we are forced to live them—and the juxtaposition of hope and love with bitterness and distrust makes it easy for them to choose the former over the later. Here, in short, is a sort of playing God that is not just OK is but morality's highest achievement. Nor does it require some scientist's magic potion. All that side of the picture is played for laughs because its real concerns lie elsewhere. The title's "spotless mind" thus has a double meaning: the hygienic mental cleansing the characters think they are going to get and the moral epiphany they actually do get—which, mutatis mutandis, would be recognizable to Alexander Pope. Or Pope Alexander, for that matter.