Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is an introverted guy who has difficulty making eye contact with people, let alone asking them out. One Valentine’s Day, on a random impulse, he ditches work and heads to the beach in Montauk, where he keeps seeing a girl in a bright orange sweatshirt with even brighter blue hair. Her name is Clementine (Kate Winslet) and, despite their vastly contrasting personalities, they spend the day together, and the next. Alas, all is not great in their world, however, and sadly their relationship ends when, on another impulse, Clementine decides to erase Joel from her memory using a little known company who specialises in a very concentrated form of brain damage. Joel opts to undergo the same procedure, but it doesn’t quite go as planned when he decides mid-operation that he might have made the wrong decision.
Before I get into this review, I need to get something out of my system. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It has never been on that list. Vinyl is on that list. So is Meet the Parents. And Last Year at Marienbad. And presumably dozens of other relatively worthless movie when compared against Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Even if you don’t like this movie, you have to admit that it’s worthy of a place on the list purely based on the originality of the movie, the manner in which it is told and the pure level of imagination and creativity on display. OK, rant over, back to work.
t’s probably clear from that little rant above that I’m something of a fan of this film. It narrowly missed out on being Movie of the Month for the LAMB next month, somehow losing to Grosse Pointe Blank (so you can expect a review of that at some point next week seeing as it’s on another list I’m going through), but I watched it anyway to cross off one of the last remaining Kate Winslet films I’ve got left. I’ve been leaving this one for several reasons, not least of which is my girlfriend had no desire to see it again, claiming it to be “weird,” by which she usually means “different,” and it’s that difference that really appeals to me.
For starters the central plot of the movie is something I’d never heard before. There’s the old joke that Hollywood has twelve plots it sticks to, and the 13th is written by Charlie Kaufman, the man behind the similarly twisty likes of Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and the maybe too weird for its own good Synecdoche, New York. The notion that you can erase selected parts of your memory, by choice, is a novel concept, but that’s just where it begins. There’s a brief scene in the waiting room of the company performing the procedure where we see and overhear snippets of the lives of other patients undergoing the same treatment – a woman clutches the possessions of a dog presumably no longer with her, and the receptionist (a never-been-cuter Kirsten Dunst) explains over the phone to another customer that it’s against company policy to perform the procedure to the same person three times in the same year, so we can assume that said woman maybe falls in love a little too frequently. The film then goes on to explore what a world where this procedure is possible could be like. How would you feel if you found out someone had erased you? Not great, one imagines. What are the people like who do this kind of thing for a living? And what if you found yourself in your own memories as they were disappearing? How could you stop it happening? Would that even be possible? That’s the great thing about Kaufman’s script; he creates an entirely new concept, then tears it apart, in a similar but slightly quieter way than Christopher Nolan did with Inception.
Eternal Sunshine isn’t content to just have this main focal plot either. An already complex idea is told in a non-linear fashion, with Carrey’s Joel living his and Clementine’s relationship backwards as the memories are erased, all the while jumping to the procedure being performed by technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and their boss Howard (Tom Wilkinson), and the problems Joel’s resistance poses for their everyday job. The fact that there’s a lot more to these supporting characters and their lives adds even more layers to a script that must have been the cause of several headaches to storyboard out.
Carrey and Winslet are wonderful in their roles. Carrey plays for the most part against type as the shy, inward Joel, although he is required to break out some of this more immature shtick when delving into some of his earlier memories. I always enjoy Carrey’s more subdued performances, and this is one of his better ones. Similarly, Winslet takes a break from playing relatively serious fare to let her ever-changing hair down and have some fun with a free-wheeling, spirited, outgoing character.
There are some downright creepy moments here too. At one point Joel passes through a memory that has already been erased, in which the people have faces like warm plasticine. Elsewhere background details disappear in the memories as they are erased, with fence posts vanishing as Joel runs past them, books and people blinking out of existence and darkness chasing him in one of the more bizarre fleeing scenes in cinema. It’s all masterfully done too, with Michel Gondry using as many practical effects as possible, so in one instance Joel runs down an ever-darkening book shop and into the front room of his friends (David Cross and Jane Adams, in oft-overlooked performances that add touches of familiarity and humour whenever they’re on screen.
I consider this a near perfect, essential film. I cannot explain why it has never been on the 1001 List. It’s inventive, engaging, revelatory and very, very unique. I just hope no-one ever wipes it from my memory.
Choose Film 10/10