N-G Film Series: 'Eternal Sunshine' a story of enduring love

Need a Valentine's Day date idea?

Check out one of the strangest stories of enduring love, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," in The News-Gazette Film Series at 1 or 7 p.m. Saturday at the Virginia Theatre.

"Eternal Sunshine" is a 2004 science fiction romance in which a man and a woman with a troubled relationship separately undergo a procedure that will erase them from each other's memories. The impulsive Clementine (Kate Winslet) does it first without telling Joel (Jim Carrey). When Joel receives a form letter from a company called Lacuna Inc. saying Clementine has erased him from her memory, he investigates and decides to do likewise. But during the Lacuna procedure in a semi-conscious state, he has second thoughts, and he and Clementine (or, more properly, his memory of her) try to hide in odd corners of his brain from the technicians progressively wiping out all traces of her.

The film's real-time plotline spans four days flanking Valentine's Day in 2004, but Joel flees through memories of his entire two-year affair with Clementine and even of his early childhood in his effort to hide and thus preserve some memory of her.

The actual sequence of events on the screen is not that straightforward, though. Viewers should take careful note of what happens at the beginning of the film so that they can re-evaluate it at the end.

As we watch the memory erasure process and learn more about the doctor (British actor Tom Wilkinson), his secretary (Kirsten Dunst) and his technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), the film takes on more sinister aspects – or at least some of the disquieting elements of "Memento," where characters control the protagonist by manipulating what little memory he has left.

In any case, it is not a comedic film even though some reviewers referred to it as a romantic comedy (apparently on the basis of Carrey's presence alone) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association classified it as a comedy for the Golden Globes awards. It's actually one of Carrey's best serious roles.

The film's complex structure and fantastic ideas are consistent with other work from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," and "Being John Malkovich") and director Michel Gondry (famous for commercials and music videos, especially with Bjork). Gondry and Kaufman first teamed on Gondry's debut feature, "Human Nature," which was less than successful but helped lead to "Eternal Sunshine."

The screenplay, from a story by Gondry, Kaufman and painter Pierre Bismuth (who came up with the germ of the idea) was tightly scripted but nonetheless allowed the actors a lot of room for improvisation. Most of the dialogue between Ruffalo and Wood was ad-libbed, and Carrey and Winslet worked out their exchanges in pre-filming sessions.

Gondry also improvised on the set with two camera operators who received instructions from him on what and how to shoot via special headsets. And one night while shooting in New York City, he hustled everyone out of the studio when he heard that the circus was coming to town and elephants were being walked down the street. In fact, while Joel and Clementine are moving through the crowd around the pachyderms, you can hear paparazzi yelling to Carrey to talk to them.

The notion that love can defy even loss of one's knowledge about the beloved is obviously highly romantic (Alan Rudolph's 1987 "Made in Heaven" had a similar theme), and "Eternal Sunshine" does come off as a modern romantic classic despite the generally grungy look of many of the settings and Joel and Clementine's personal scruffiness.

Gondry and Kaufman also leave it up to the viewer to decide whether the ending is a happy one or not. Kaufman's original plan was to reveal that Joel and Clementine repeatedly fall in love, break up, have memories erased, and then meet and fall in love all over again. The final screen version, though, is more straightforward.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" received four Golden Globe nominations (actor, actress, picture and screenplay) and two Oscar nominations (actress and original screenplay). It won the Oscar for screenplay and various awards from festivals and critics groups around the world.

The title derives from the 1717 poem "Eloisa to Abelard" by Alexander Pope about one of history's most famous ill-fated couples. And a couple of years ago, neuroscientists began reporting that it may eventually be possible to eliminate specific long-term memories.

But in the meantime, remember to take your Valentine to see this fascinating, challenging and moving film at the Virginia. You'll have lots to discuss afterward.

Richard Leskosky teaches Media and Cinema Studies at the University of Illinois and has been reviewing films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Coming up in The News-Gazette Film Series

Feb. 13: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004)

March 20: "Chinatown" (1974)

April 17: "Back to the Future" (1985)

May 15: "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)

June 5: "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

Nov. 13: "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1940)

Dec. 4: "Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992)

Note: All show times are 1 and 7 p.m. at the Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., C. Tickets are $5.

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