by Mel Valentin
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (ESotSM) proves, once again (some, like this reviewer, had lost faith after seeing "Adaptation") that Charlie Kaufman's one brilliant screenwriter; Michel Gondry, the director, succeeds admirably in translating Kaufman's complex, layered story to the screen with imaginative, sometimes hallucinatory visuals, fluid, unobtrusive camerawork and editing that, contrary to the naysayers, doesn't undermine, but instead supports narrative and character development (and insight into psychology).Kaufman's script brilliantly captures all of the key stages present in all (or most) romantic relationships, the hesitations, the initial awkward exchanges (how much to reveal, how much to withhold), the inevitable headlong plunge into emotional and physical intimacy, the fears, the anxieties, the boredom, and ultimately, the messy breakup, where tensions and conflicts explode and individuals either realize they no longer love each other, or that mutual incompatibilities have turned into mutual apathy or, worse, mutual loathing. And Kaufman provides this insight through a non-linear dramatic structure.
"Structurally brilliant, emotionally affecting, among the best of 2004."
ESotSM's unconventional, non-linear narrative structure is well suited to the premise of a character revisiting his own memories as they're slowly erased. Some critics and commentators have mentioned their difficulty in following the complicated, non-linear narrative structure, framed around the memory erasure technicians (referred to as "erasers") wiping Joel's (Jim Carrey's) memories of Clementine (Kate Winslet) sequentially, primarily moving backward in time, from the painful breakup to their first meeting. Instead, careful attention to Gondry's camerawork and editing reveals the boundaries of Joel's rapidly fading memories and the "objective" world of the "eraser" technicians. The "eraser" plotline also helps to ground the narrative in the everyday reality outside of Joel's memories and serves as a comic counterpoint to Joel's interior world. Dramatic tension and conflict subsequently derive from Joel's belated decision, in mid-memory wipe, to halt the erasure process and save his memories of Clementine, and in a sense, save himself.
Some critics have suggested that the achronological opening sequence is potentially confusing and risks losing audience interest and empathy with the central characters and their relationship. The opening sequence sets narrative expectations in motion: what are we seeing? Did it occur at all? Imagination? Memory? Dream? Almost as importantly, when did it occur? Audiences might be, however, bothered or distracted by the inconsistency between the opening sequence and the rest of the film: Kaufman and Gondry allow the audience to hear Joel's thoughts via voice-over narration, but they refrain from using voice over for the remainder of the film. That inconsistency can be resolved by realizing that, instead of continuously "hearing" Joel's thoughts throughout the film, once Joel has begun the memory-wipe procedure, the audience is taken directly into his interior life, visualizing his thoughts and memories, eventually drawing us into a surprising intimacy with Joel's metaphysical predicament.
Jim Carrey gives a mostly restrained performance, returning to physical comedy only when the narrative calls for it: when, inside his memories, he returns to earlier versions of himself. In addition, Carrey often has to carry entire scenes by himself, as he either comments on the unfolding, then crumbling memory as a passive or active third participant, then subsequently addressing the camera directly as the shadows erase his memories. Kate Winslet is luminous, as always; her performance captures Clementine's mercurial character perfectly, oscillating between engaging the audience and losing us altogether (and clueing us in to Joel's conflicted feelings toward Clementine). Kaufman ultimately suggests that memory moves beyond the visual and the aural: it goes deeper, into physical sensation and emotion.
Even (near) flawless films, however, have their shortcomings. Kaufman's script stumbles in the third act, specifically where the subplot and main plot overlap. The characters in the "eraser" subplot go through a series of complications and reversals keyed by a major character revelation, all which serves to distract from the main plotline. Unfortunately, the audience will feel Kaufman's heavy hand here. The audience will be able to draw the line between one particular complication in the subplot and a negative development in the main plotline later in the film. The movie should have ended on a more ambiguous note, leaving the characters with unresolved questions that we could answer for ourselves. Nonetheless, by that point in the narrative, Kaufman, Gondry, and the cast had generated enough "goodwill" that this narrative.POSTSCRIPT: Kaufman lifted the phrase "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" from a line of poetry by Alexander Pope, about the forbidden, and eventually doomed, love affair between Abelard and Heloise, a medieval monk/theologian and an aristocratic nun. If it sounds familiar, it should: the protagonist/puppeteer (John Cusack) in "Being John Malkovich" stages a puppet play early in the film with Abelard and Heloise as the leads.
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originally posted: 05/28/05 07:07:04