Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (15)

Pas sur la Bouche (PG)

Dizzy, cerebral, thrilling (and that's just the concept)

If a high-concept movie is one that boils down to a single simple idea, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is surely a deep-concept movie. Director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman take their concept and tenaciously burrow into it until all its possibilities are comprehensively turned inside out. To say that Eternal Sunshine... is crammed with ideas is an understatement; miraculously, they all stem from one premise, the complexity of which is not for an instant sold short. You've never seen a Jim Carrey comedy half as dizzy, nor as cerebral.

That premise is this: suppose you could have all your bad memories cleanly erased. The set-up is disarmingly simple: one cold Valentine's morning, depressed Joel (Carrey) sets off for work, then on an inexplicable whim takes a train to the seaside. On the way back, he's accosted by blue-haired Clementine (Kate Winslet), a buzzy bohemian who launches herself at him with neurotic intensity. Joel shrinks into his seat, but he's hooked. Of course, it's instantly clear that they should really run a mile from each other, yet their romance seems fated.

And then... fade to black and to the credit sequence, at which point something has clearly gone wrong. This review should really fade to black right here, for fear of giving too much away, so be warned, but the next few minutes of bewildering incident lead to the revelation that the couple have indeed run aground, and that Clementine has arranged to have all her memories of Joel erased by Lacuna Inc, a company run by the genially reassuring Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). So Joel, in turn, decides to have Clementine excised from his mind, and we begin to realise that the narrative is primarily taking place inside Joel's head.

By that, I don't mean that the film pulls the standard trick of making imaginary events look real as in, say, Fight Club. We're literally taken into Joel's mind, presented as an actual place, a labyrinthine landscape from which Clementine is vanishing like a species on the verge of extinction. The entire film is a repertoire of visual and auditory metaphors for the process of forgetting. As Joel relives the past, the world literally dissolves around him: people's faces become soft-focus smudges; book titles fade on the shelf. What's amazing is how discreetly, even casually, all this is done: although Gondry basically treats us to one long special-effects extravaganza, everything seems quite natural in its craziness, informed as it is with the logic of dream.

As Joel travels backwards into his memory, you feel you're looking down a hole that gets ever deeper, revealing further vertiginous drops: you take stock of where you are and realise you've wandered into a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. Yet the film somehow keeps us precariously suspended between total bewilderment and relative groundedness. All this might make the film seem painfully tricksy: but Eternal Sunshine... is tricksy in the way that the mind is. The constant slippage from one thing to another vividly evokes the porousness of thought. As his memories blur into each other, Joel walks out of a bookshop and right into his friends' living room; he remembers a rainy day in his childhood, and bingo, it pours down in his apartment.

The whole experience is perplexing, disorientating and totally thrilling - the unconscious reimagined as a funhouse ride. At one time, you could only really look to European art cinema for such play with perception and time, and specifically to Alain Resnais, whose radically fractured fictions - such as Providence and the time-travel story Je t'aime, je t'aime - profoundly changed film's language for representing memory. Now, who'd have thought it, American mainstream comedy has picked up the baton - although here, with a French director at the helm.

Inevitably, though, people will think of Eternal Sunshine... as a Charlie Kaufman film: it displays the same free-associating brilliance as his Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, but it's considerably more coherent and organic than either. What makes it pure Kaufman is not just the zaniness or the trick-box structure, but the serious speculative intent behind the goofball surface.

It's all the more tempting to label this a Kaufman film given that his last collaboration with pop-video whizz Gondry was the lacklustre, comic-bookish Human Nature. In fact, Eternal Sunshine... marks Gondry's arrival as an audacious stylist. The film is sometimes starkly poetic. But strategically, Gondry offsets the surrealism with an understated, quasi-naturalistic grubbiness, photographer Ellen Kuras setting the initial mood with drab wintry light and nervy hand-held camerawork. Gondry also obtains cracking against-type performances from Carrey, winningly understated as a prickly ball of defensive anxiety, and from Winslet, whose Clementine is at once seductive and rebarbative. Infuriatingly mercurial as she is, we believe her when she tells Joel, "I'm not a concept... I'm just a fucked-up girl."

The only drawback is the slightly grating goofiness of the subplot involving Mierzwiak's crew (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst), although Dunst's bubbly stoner act will delight anyone who thinks eternal sun shines out of her spotless behind. The film's unsung star is surely editor Valdis Oskarsdottir: shaping all this material must have been like auditing the Library of Babel. This is dazzling, daring stuff: genuine philosophical cinema that you can still eat your popcorn to.

As for Alain Resnais himself, it's been 20 years since he abandoned the dark complexity that was his forte. His increasingly theatrical approach had its last burst of inventive energy in 1993's Smoking/No Smoking. But his new film Pas sur la Bouche is a laboriously frothy reconstruction of a 1925 comedy operetta.

In this creakily-crooned story of romantic misunderstandings, there's only a dash of retrospective irony applied to such jarring elements as an outright racist lament sung by a wealthy industrialist (Pierre Arditi, the one truly distinguished turn). Lambert Wilson makes embarrassingly heavy weather of his American visitor's bad French, and the film's only real distinction is that, in Sabine Azéma's fluttery grande dame, it puts someone on screen who's even more arch than co-star Audrey Tautou. This film has about as much point as, say, Peter Greenaway doing a by-the-book adaptation of a Brian Rix farce.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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