One of my all-time favorite movies is Claude Lelouch's too-little-seen 1974 French love story And Now My Love. Lelouch's conceit is that true lovers are made for each other, so he starts three generations back and ends at the moment the lovers meet. Michel Gondry's current Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays with a darker variation of the same idea. The film suggests that true lovers may be ultimately right for each other but that doesn't mean their relationship will necessarily work out. And Now My Love is a dizzy delight. Wilder in premise and less nakedly optimistic, Eternal Sunshine is dazzling and unexpectedly moving.
Written by the monumentally talented Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Eternal Sunshine is the story of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), two contemporary New Yorkers who meet at the beach, date, fall in love, move in together and then suffer an inevitable cooling of ardor that leads to bickering, mutual dissatisfaction and a radical decision to break up. After a sadly ugly fight, Clementine storms out and contacts the Lacuna Corporation where Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his team of neuroscientists specialize in erasing unwanted memories. Before Joel even realizes what's up, Clementine has had their entire relationship vaporized from her mind. When he tries to contact her, she sees him as a complete stranger. Moreover, she's already involved in a new relationship with Patrick (Elijah Wood), one of Lacuna's less-principled technicians, although Clementine has no clue about Patrick's ethical sliminess since she has no memory of Lacuna either.
Distraught and stymied, Joel decides he has no alternative but to engage Lacuna to wipe his memory clean of Clementine as well. As he's undergoing the process, however, some rooted piece of Joel's heart begins to resist the electronic nepenthe. And what follows is a typically crazy Charlie Kaufman adventure of the brain where a drugged and inert Joel tries to stash memories of Clementine into corners of his mind where Dr. Mierzwiak and his team can't locate and eradicate them. In a touching act of self-sacrifice, Joel repeatedly tucks Clementine into memories of humiliation. She comforts him as child when a bully makes him cry. She teases and encourages him as a teenager when his mother catches him masturbating. In short, Joel, who has always been less than forthcoming with Clementine, brings her into the most painful moments of his life as a strategy to keep from losing her. The narrative question is whether the tactic will work or whether Lacuna will finish the job it's been hired to do.
A viewer can easily provide such a chronological account of what happens to Joel and Clementine. But this is a Charlie Kaufman script, and nothing unfolds in a straightforward manner. The structure of the film is an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. It starts near the end and moves in jerks and shimmers back toward the beginning. Kaufman's brilliance here as elsewhere is that he keeps us confident that any momentary confusion we experience is purposeful and will ultimately be clarified.
Less successful is a subplot about the Lacuna employees that rears up along the way like a mushroom on a neatly mowed lawn. Dr. Mierzwiak has designed the memory-erasing techniques, but he routinely relies on his staff to execute the process in long overnight sessions while the client is asleep. Joel's chances of holding onto his memories of Clementine are enhanced by the fact that Patrick doesn't bother to stay on site as he's supposed to while Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) put Joel's erasing program on autopilot and stage a sexual bacchanal fueled by Joel's liquor cabinet. The subplot provides an essential twist that feeds back into the main storyline, but the story of Mary and Stan feels under-baked and contrived. More is hinted at than the film has time to explore. While I am complaining, I might also gripe that the whole of the film runs five to seven minutes too long. The denouement explains where the film should have dared merely to suggest. Had it ended with a reprise of the opening sequence with Joel and Clementine meeting on the beach, it would have achieved everything it does now and sustained an even greater degree of intriguing ambiguity.
But don't get me wrong. Eternal Sunshine is a terrific movie. Winslet exhibits once again that she's a gifted actress who, Titanic's excess notwithstanding, is committed to choosing quality roles. And Carrey proves for the first time in his career that he's got real chops. He was brilliant in Man on the Moon, but in Andy Kaufman, he still wasn't playing a normal human being. Here, he is, and he's very fine.
And from a movie this fundamentally kooky, we don't expect wisdom. But we get it. Forgive and forget, the old saw goes. But this picture illustrates that to forgive, which is essential to loving, we must remember.