LOVING IN OBLIVION

LOVING IN OBLIVION

How do you mend a broken heart? Zap the sufferer's memories.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 22 2004
LOVING IN OBLIVION

LOVING IN OBLIVION

How do you mend a broken heart? Zap the sufferer's memories.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 22 2004

LOVING IN OBLIVION

Film

How do you mend a broken heart? Zap the sufferer's memories.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

FILM IS supposed to be a director’s medium. Although the script serves as the blueprint for a movie, the writer tends to be the least visible, and influential, part of the creative process. But American screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is the exception who proves the rule. His movies are so wildly imagined that, no matter what the director and actors are up to, keeping up with the plot is like taking a whitewater ride through the writer’s mind. In Being John Malkovich (1999), as we watched a puppeteer slip through a mysterious portal into the head of a famous actor, it was like entering a portal into Kaufman’s own brain. And that’s exactly where he took us in Adaptation (2002), where Kaufman made himself the main character, a neurotic screenwriter struggling to adapt a book about orchids. Now, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hollywood’s most adventurous architect of mental space takes us on another head trip—in a movie that unfolds largely within the dreamscape of one character’s unconscious.

Once again, Kaufman designs a Möbius strip narrative tied to an outlandish conceit—what if we could erase a lover from our memory? But Eternal Sunshine is not as zany or sensational as Malkovich or Adaptation. The story doesn’t devour itself with the same kind of funhouse cannibalism. This time, as we lose ourselves in Kaufman’s postmodern maze, the conceptual architecture melts away, until we’re alone with the characters and our feelings. More drama than comedy, Eternal Sunshine is a movie about memory that stirs our own emotional amnesia. It doesn’t blow our minds so much as bruise our hearts.

An atypically understated Jim Carrey stars as Joel, who’s shocked to discover that his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has had all her memories of their relationship erased. Deciding to undergo the same procedure, and wipe any recollection of her from his mind, he contacts the inventor of the experimental process, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), who runs an outfit called Lacuna Inc. with a motley crew of assistants (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst). The filmmakers don’t delve into the sci-fi details of the procedure. The sedated Joel simply wears a contraption on his head that scans his brain for memories of Clementine, which are then erased on a computer screen.

The movie unfolds as a romance in reverse: we enter Joel’s mind and watch him replay scenes of his love affair, beginning with the breakup and scrolling backwards. But as the lab workers try to zap his memories, Joel struggles to hang onto them, falling in love with Clementine all over again. In the waking world, meanwhile, a couple of ragged subplots unfold as Ruffalo and Dunst engage in a bout of playful hankypanky, and Wood’s shifty character preys on Clementine’s affections.

French filmmaker Michel Gondry— redeeming himself after directing Kaufman’s half-baked Human Nature (2001)— draws superb performances from his leads. Although Eternal Sunshine is being billed as a Jim Carrey movie, it belongs to Winslet. Portraying a smart, mercurial spitfire who keeps dying her hair a rainbow of colours, she has never been better. And Carrey turns his usual antic disposition inside-out to play a quietly repressed, vulnerable guy with a restless inner child. Almost everyone in the film is cast against type, including Ruffalo, who plays a nerdy slacker, and Wood, who erases his Frodo image by portraying a slimeball.

Despite the premise, the story doesn’t seem fanciful. Shooting on location in and around New York City, Gondry uses realistic settings, such as a snowy beach, to create his surreal dreamscapes. Relying on visual imagination rather than digital effects, he manages to convey the quicksand of emotional memory. There’s something weirdly ephemeral about Eternal Sunshine. Just two days after seeing it, my own memory of the film has almost completely evaporated, like a dream. Which is not to say the movie is forgettable—I’m still clinging to the strangebut-familiar emotions it raised, and am curious to see it again to find out just where they came from. I?]