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.
Eternal Sunshine loses its way on occasion, particularly in the sequences where Joel reverts first to childhood and then to infancy in his effort to find a place in his memory where he can hide Clementine. In both scenes the figure we are watching onscreen ceases to be Joel Barrish and becomes immediately recognizable as Jim Carrey, circa 1994. The mugging and mewling Carrey brings to these scenes might be funny in another context, but they relate to nothing else in the tone or content of the film. One almost wonders whether there's a rider in Carrey's contract insisting, "Star retains the right to do something rubbery with his face at least once during project." It's a pity, too, because otherwise Carrey is refreshingly un-Carrey here, responding passively to the acute hyperactivity with which Winslet imbues Clementine.
And while it's impossible not to think of Eternal Sunshine as Kaufman's film (fair or not), Gondry directs it with wisdom and nuance. Movies often portray memories and dream states with a hyperreal vividness, made up of garish colors (or stark black and white), absurdist landscapes, and, yes, sometimes even dwarves. Gondry takes the opposite course, filming Eternal Sunshine with an aggressive lack of style, or at least of stylization. Scenes are dimly lit and hazily filmed (cinematographer Ellen Kuras filled many of the sets with smoke before shooting), lending the movie an almost documentary feel. Even when special effects are called for--when a fence must evaporate or a character disappear from a fading memory--Gondry underplays them as much as possible. The result is a cinematic vagueness that makes the film less aesthetic yet more persuasive. This is how dreams really look: like reality, only less so.
But Eternal Sunshine's elusiveness is not limited to its look. One of the least remarked upon achievements of the film may also be its most cunning: just how unmemorable Joel and Clementine's relationship is. Its general contours are clear enough--Clementine always pushing and testing, Joel always retreating and nursing grievances--but its details are easily forgotten. The dialogue is unremarkable (Clementine explains how when she was little she thought she was ugly, and Joel tells her she's pretty), and the conflicts somewhat generic (she thinks she's ready to be a mother, he doesn't). "There's something weirdly ephemeral about Eternal Sunshine," Brian Johnson of Maclean's wrote following the film's theatrical release. "Just two days after seeing it, my own memory of the film has almost completely evaporated, like a dream. Which is not to say that the movie is forgettable--I'm still clinging to the strange but familiar emotions it raised, and am curious to see it again to see just where they came from." Johnson was on to something: The film provokes an intense, yet oddly unspecific emotional response. Like a memory that has been not-quite-successfully erased. Or maybe a smell.
The Home Movies List:
Memories are made of this
Vertigo (1958). If filmmaking is the production of counterfeit memories, then Vertigo is a movie within a movie, with Jimmy Stewart as the director and Kim Novak as his star. (As badly as Stewart mistreats Novak, Hitchcock was reputed to treat his leading ladies worse.)
La Jetée (1962). Probably the most striking 28-minute film of all time, a philosophical time travel story told entirely in black-and-white stills and voice-over. (If Borges had made movies, this is what they would have looked like.) The loose remake Twelve Monkeys quadrupled the running time, but felt thinner nonetheless.
After Life (a.k.a. Wandafuru raifu) (1999). A sweeter, gentler Defending Your Life. Upon dying, souls travel to a way station where kindly bureaucrats help each one choose the favorite memory he will carry with him into eternity.
Memento (2000). The rare gimmick movie that lives up to, and even exceeds, its gimmick. Whereas Joel and Clementine's amnesia prevents them from finding their closure, Leonard Shelby's forces him to find his, violently, again and again.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003). Given the timing, nothing was going to beat The Fog of War for Best Documentary. But this fascinating, Rashômon-like exploration of a Long Island child-abuse case--told largely through the family's contemporaneous home movies--deserved the statuette.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.