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No. 12: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” ~~Clementine Kruczynski

If it’s true that the course of love doesn’t run smooth, it’s also true that our memories of that trip don’t follow a timeline. In the beginning, there are the obvious landmarks: the first meeting, a tentative investigation; the first conversation; the first kiss. But once affection sours, time goes full Cuisinart on those recollections, scrambling them so hopelessly we couldn’t reorganize them if we tried.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) experience this reality not once but again and again in Michel Gondry’s tender and achingly beautiful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film with a script that mimics the curious effects of time upon our memories of lost love. Here, the end and the beginning bleed together, and they also cloud the way we see everything in the middle because the boundary lines are loose and fuzzy. Charlie Kaufman, who penned the knotty script, seems intent on drawing us in by providing all the answers and letting us ferret out the equation.

What’s so wonderfully original and mesmerizing about “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” is that Joel and Clementine are in the exact same position we are. Both find themselves in an odd situation with the facts of the present, yet they have no idea how they got there. And it takes quite some time before we figure out how they did, either. Since their story can’t quite be told in a linear fashion, let’s start somewhere in the muddy middle: On an uncharacteristic whim, timid loner Joel skips work and hops a train to Montauk. The ride back leads him to meet Clementine, a chatty free spirit with unruly blue hair (“I apply my personality in a paste,” she offers brightly) who’s sure she’s met Joel before. There’s an unexpected connection that threatens to become more, and that’s when everything goes pear-shaped: Seems Joel and Clem not only know each other, they used to be lovers. The reason neither remembers this has to do with Lacuna, Inc., an odd little business run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) that specializes in erasing painful memories.

Additional stories funnel into “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” involving Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (the invaluable Mark Ruffalo), Lacuna’s memory-vanquishing technicians, and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Mierzwiak’s receptionist. Their lives intersect with Joel’s because they’re charged with erasing Clementine from his mind, and all three are so wrapped up in their own strange realities that they don’t realize Joel wants to stop the procedure right in the middle of it. Not that his protests matter, really; he’s hidden too far in his own mind to be heard. This makes his anguish all the more wrenching, for who hasn’t let heartbreak lead to a bad choice screaming to be taken back?

There are, perhaps, no appropriate words to describe what Carrey and Winslet bring to this bittersweet examination of love. The kooky plot requires them to anchor their characters in reality, make them human enough for us to suffer their hurts and feel their joy. Carrey quiets himself enormously to play Joel, a lonely man who guards his heart closely. Winslet’s more open but no less touching as Clementine, a woman whose flightiness covers a deep core of insecurity and self-awareness. Together, with their stirring chemistry, they make Joel and Clementine’s love story one of the greatest ever told. 

Worry not, though, that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is some kind of repackaged epic romance with a comedic twist. Elements of the universal exist, certainly, but with Gondry behind the camera this is love story that feels almost shockingly intimate. We catch glimpses of under-the-cover confessions, lazy afternoon strolls, early dinners uncomfortable in their cold silence — the things no one ever sees. All the shots are so gorgeously lensed, so precisely placed and edited, that what we have is a story told in scattered Polaroids. And sometimes it’s the snapshots, creased and smudged with fingerprints, we keep closest to our hearts.