It's often said that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. This is nonsense. Yes, a scent may on occasion provoke an emphatic, unmediated recollection, but it is typically an imprecise one--a general period in one's life rather than a particular moment. Our specific memories, by contrast, are primarily visual and auditory, not unlike a movie playing in the mind's eye. It's hardly surprising, then, that cinema has often been described as a kind of synthetic memory. As John Malkovich, playing director F.W. Murnau in Shadow of the Vampire, explained, "We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory, but our memory will neither blur nor fade."
With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry have created a film whose entire purpose is to blur and fade, a self-erasing tribute to the fragility of memory and of love. The film, released on video this week, begins simply enough: One cold, gray Valentine's morning, moody introvert Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) decides on impulse to skip work and take a train out to Montauk, Long Island. There, on a desolate beach, he encounters manic extrovert Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). The two begin talking on the train ride home to New York, and over the next two nights love begins to bloom.
But as with Kaufman's earlier scripts (Human Nature, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), things soon turn complicated. This is not the new romance that Joel and Clementine perceive it to be. The two of them have, in fact, just recently broken up after two years of living together. Eager to "get on with her life," Clementine had all memory of Joel erased from her mind by a low-rent medical outfit called Lacuna. Discovering Clementine's betrayal, Joel decided to have the procedure performed on himself as well. That night, unconscious in his bed as Lacuna technicians work (and play) around him, Joel relives each memory of Clementine even as it is wiped from his brain. The erasing process (and with it, the movie) works backward in time, beginning with the most recent memories, full of fights and ill-will. But as the process reaches further back, to moments of tenderness and joy, Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine and realizes he does not want to lose these memories after all. He tries frantically to find an obscure corner of his mind where he can hide some scrap of her from the technicians' hunt and destroy mission, but they always find him. He watches helplessly as, one by one, each memory is irretrievably lost--titles fade from the covers of books, passersby disappear, and then Clementine too vanishes, only to reappear in another doomed recollection, all the way back to their very first meeting, at a beach party in Montauk.
The story-told-in-reverse is a common enough movie device, usually utilized to conceal information from the audience. But Kaufman and Gondry use it to a different end, gradually uncovering not hidden facts but forgotten emotions. There are no unexpected twists or sudden revelations about Joel and Clementine, just a wistful backward view of love's decay. Unlike Kaufman's previous work, Eternal Sunshine sets out not to stun us with the originality of its gimmicks, but rather to wound us with the earnest familiarity of its sentiment.
At least, that's the case when it comes to the film's treatment of Joel and Clementine's relationship. But even as the film explores that two-year love affair, it also recounts the events of one night--the night that Joel lies in bed while Lacuna's memory thieves pillage his brain. The scatter-brained, vaguely adolescent technicians in charge of the procedure are Stan (Mark Ruffalo, endearing in Clark Kent glasses and a chaotic pompadour) and Patrick (Elijah Wood, looking all of 14). When Stan's quasi-girlfriend Mary (Kirsten Dunst) comes over to see him, Patrick decides to leave and spend time with his own new squeeze, Clementine--yes, the same one, whom he fell for while erasing her mind a few days earlier and has been wooing with lines stolen from her lost memories of Joel ever since. While Stan and Mary party around the dreaming Joel, the procedure hits a snag; Stan is forced to call in Lacuna's founder, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), for whom Mary has long held a powerful schoolgirl crush. These amorous convolutions culminate in the one great surprise of the film, a poignant twist that underscores the cruelty of Lacuna's benevolent oblivion and both complicates and clarifies Joel and Clementine's post-erasure reunion.
At its core, Eternal Sunshine is about the need for atonement and redemption. "Freed" from the memory of their painful breakup, Joel and Clementine can no longer forgive nor ask forgiveness for past hurts received or inflicted, and can reconcile neither with one another nor with themselves. Their past together is like a frayed nerve that leads nowhere, the phantom limb of the amputee. No matter how many times they wander in the footsteps of their lost memories they can never recapture them. It is only through Fate or God's grace or True Love--or, for the more literal-minded, a glitch in Lacuna's process--that they are given a second chance to make themselves whole. These are admirably big themes.