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 lah-di-dah 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!”