Wiping the Slate Clean

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Review of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', director Michel Gondry

This is a dazzling and unique angle on the romantic comedy, penned by one of Hollywood's most original writers, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). The rom com of late has been a genre where reality has been sucked out to be replaced by syrupy sentiment and synthetic Mills and Boon cliches. Instead Eternal Sunshine views the romantic comedy through the frame of a wry emotional realism, by looking at the angst, heartbreak and unfulfilled promise of romance, although the film remains tender, uplifting and inspiring.

The premise is deceptively simple but it is the way it unravels that fascinates and proves utterly engaging. Joel (Jim Carrey), who's shy, withdrawn, and with some unspecified emotional baggage, meets Clementine (Kate Winslet). She's a kooky, overtalkative eccentric and there's a breathless implausibility to the way the romance develops. Credits, darkness and then Joel's tears. The next time we see Joel he speaks to Clementine who seems to have no recollection of who he is, and she's found another relationship. Joel discovers that Clementine has asked a company, Lacuna, for all traces of his memory to be erased from her mind. Stunned and bewildered he asks the inventor of the process to carry out the same task on his mind. Lying in bed, attached to a memory eraser, he casts his mind over what we now see was a two-year tumultuous unsuccessful relationship. We are taken inside the mind, through the interlocking pathways of Joel's memories. This is a typical Kaufman device and is used to profound effect in this tale.

Playing fast and loose with time and space, this amazing film shows different levels of reality simultaneously. Joel views the affair in reverse order, from ugly break-up to sweet tentative first encounter. But what happens if the heartbroken lover decides he wants to hang on to his precious memories? In his mindscape he and Clementine are now both on the lam trying to escape the probing presence that wishes to erase her from his mind. They seek refuge in those painful comic moments, places he believes the procedure won't look; as a whingeing toddler, caught masturbating by his mother in the bedroom.

The film poses the question: isn't it better to hang on to the memory of the broken relationship, with all its shortlived joy and pain, than to have it removed altogether because that's the only mature attitude to take? Do we delude ourselves by only recalling the sweet, affecting moments and have some kind of convenient amnesia for what wasn't working? Knowing that you may be incompatible with your lover, do you give it a second chance because the good moments will eclipse the petty differences?

Jim Carrey would seem an unlikely star for this hip Hollywood offering but his performance as the morose, lonely melancholic revitalised by his foil, the irrepressible Kate Winslet, is utterly compelling. Gone are the mugging and teeth-baring antics - thank god.

In a climactic scene of great poetic power, Joel and Clementine discuss their relationship in a beach house that's falling apart all around them. Michel Gondry may come from pop promos but his use of imagery is never random and exquisitely illustrates Kaufman's vision. The film is shot simply and naturally, with low-tech special effects, which are all the more arresting for the memory- inspired surreal imagery. A very fine soundtrack shifts from a winsome romanticism in the early moments to the jarring untuned piano notes in the latter fraught stages.

This is a richly layered piece from a new generation of maverick Hollywood film-makers, broadening and flipping the genre similar to PT Anderson's Punch Drunk Love. It's a more accessible project than Kaufman's previous efforts but there's no hint of another Hollywood sell-out - we are still in very unsettling mind-bending territory here. A brilliant film that deserves a repeat viewing.