By now you’ve probably read something about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind starring Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, in what I think is his best dramatic performance to date. It’s the story of a couple whose relationship goes bad, and, rather than live with the painful memories forever, they each decide to enlist the help of a sleazy company that’s in the business of selectively erasing certain memories from its clients’ minds. Not only will the film engross you; it will leave you thinking about your childhood, and the key moments of just about every relationship you’ve ever had.
If Charlie Kaufman is not the best screenwriter writing today, he’s certainly the most original. As in Being John Malkovich, he so naturally pulls the real world into believable science fiction that certain extraordinary situations seem utterly pedestrian. Of course a crawlspace could be a wormhole into the mind of John Malkovich! Of course there’s a sleazy company in the business of erasing memories!
Kaufman’s brilliance at managing both character development and the unraveling of a science fiction idea that requires a considerable suspension of disbelief is testament to his skills as a screenwriter. In Eternal Sunshine plot and idea dance around one another in an onomatopoetic way. By that I mean that the way in which the plot is revealed very much mirrors the way we remember things — by pulling various elements, objects, and situations back from some place where they’re catalogued for eternity. In this genius way, the structure in Eternal Sunshine becomes evocative of the plot. There’s a moment in the film in which Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey flee a Barnes & Noble just as the titles of the books and indexing signs are vanishing before their very eyes. It’s a visual metaphor that brilliantly moves the plot forward while it tugs at the movie’s main thematic undercurrent — the struggle to retain memory.
The movie deftly illustrates the way each of our minds has a selective consciousness that chooses to prioritize our memories in terms of their emotional heft. Each of us has memories that we return to over and over again, memories that bring us joy, memories that bring us sadness. What this film profoundly displays is that the sad memories are as important as the joyous ones in helping us achieve emotional satisfaction and fulfillment.
But I think the main theme of this movie is regret, and the ability to move beyond it. It’s rare that a movie so loaded with “ideas” can be expressed with such lighthearted ease and create so much emotional depth. There are plenty of movies I’ve seen that I’ve wanted to erase from my memory after seeing them, but not this one.