Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (15)

Can't get you out of my head

Don't spend too long looking for a clue in the title. Eternity, sunshine and spotlessness hardly figure, though there is undeniably a mind under some scrutiny, and stress. This elusive, beguiling and occasionally beautiful movie is written by Charlie Kaufman, whose previous screenplays - Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation - are an object lesson in psychological disorientation, otherwise known as messing with your head. Prepare to be bamboozled.

On a freezing Valentine's Day, lonely-heart Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) skips work, mopes along a beach and says plaintively to himself, "If only I could meet someone new." And, right there, he bumps into a kooky stranger, Clementine (Kate Winslet), who despite her blue hair and slightly aggressive friendliness, could be the answer to his prayer. What she isn't, as it turns out, is someone "new". Joel and Clementine have met before, on this same beach, two years ago; they fell in love, and gradually they fell apart. But neither of them has any memory of this relationship. Kaufman, connoisseur of mischief, throws their story into reverse, backtracking from the end of the affair through to its beginning, with all the stages of misery, irritation and hopefulness in between. You may not entirely grasp what's going on, but then neither does Joel.

In flashback we find him baffled as to why Clementine no longer seems to know him. The enigma is resolved when he discovers that she has visited one Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), head of an outfit called Lacuna. It is the good doctor's speciality to deal out a selective amnesia: clients are put to sleep, fixed with a headset and given a treatment whereby memories of a loved or lost one are systematically erased. Clementine, fed up with Joel, has had her memory of him wiped; horror-struck, Joel seeks instant revenge by asking the doctor to erase all his memories of her. "Is there any danger of brain damage?" he asks worriedly. "Technically speaking," the doc replies, "the procedure is brain damage." The dodgy nature of the enterprise is not enhanced by the cramped, seedy premises of Lacuna itself and the vague, half-assed look of the doctor's operatives, Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) - if they were called Stan and Ollie they could hardly inspire less trust.

Time reversal and effaced memory were also the constituents of Christopher Nolan's brilliant Memento, only there the mystery being pieced together concerned a murder. In this movie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry are inquiring into a different kind of mystery, the loss of a couple's love for each other, and the thread we follow winds through the murky labyrinth of Joel's subconscious. The catch is this: Joel decides halfway through the procedure that he doesn't want to relinquish Clementine after all, and desperately clings on even while his memories of her are being obliterated. At one point he visits her at the bookshop where she works, and by agonising degrees the circumambient details of their encounter - the titles of the books, the spines faced out on the shelves - fade to white. While the Lacuna technology is busy laying waste to his brain cells, Joel scrambles around trying to hide a single remembrance of his erstwhile love, preserving for himself proof that he and Clementine were once happy together. It recalls the flailing lines from Edgar Allan Poe's A Dream within a Dream: "I hold within my hand/ Grains of the golden sand/ How few! Yet how they creep/ Through my fingers to the deep/ While I weep - while I weep! O God! Can I not grasp/ Them with a tighter clasp?"

By now the film is steering a crazed course between sci-fi comedy and romantic drama, and one might think that its mood of mercurial instability would be just the occasion for Jim Carrey's brand of rubber-faced clowning. Not so. Carrey has taken his cue from Nicolas Cage's sad-sack twin in Adaptation and curbed his wordy exuberance in favour of whipped-cur meekness, which somehow looks ungainly on him. The problem with Carrey playing downbeat is that, unlike, say, Bill Murray, his funny-guy persona has never suggested any hidden yearning or romantic melancholy, and the sudden shifting of gears isn't smooth. His emotional reticence invites Kate Winslet to do the grandstanding for both of them, and she comes across as vividly as the changing hues of her hair.

Yet for a film about the need for love, Kaufman hasn't overloaded the movie with love scenes: Joel and Clementine are framed in first meetings, snippy exchanges and huffy exits, but we get very little evidence of what made them so spoony about each other to begin with.

The film is perhaps a meditation on our susceptibility to love even when we know it can't endure. "Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders", as someone quotes Nietzsche, but Kaufman's argument seems to be that it is better to suffer love's uncertainty than be blessed with forgetfulness of it. Even the professionals aren't immune, as the subplot involving Dr Mierzwiak's ditzy receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) - herself a recipient of the Lacuna mind wipe - makes clear. To watch sorrow and regret play over Tom Wilkinson's face as the truth is revealed is to feel more keenly the lack of such nuance in Jim Carrey's performance. Indeed, the sadness of the picture made me wonder whether the "spotless mind" could be a metaphor for Alzheimer's, under which the memory of loved ones dwindles to a gradual white-out. Whatever it means, Charlie Kaufman has proven his own mind to be running on a different track from your average screenwriter, and this latest is thin on sunshine, but it gleams with invention and wit.

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