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On Screen

A 'Mind'-Bending Affair

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2004; Page WE45

"Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders."

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play lovers who seek to forget each other -- literally -- in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," a film that smartly balances sentiment and cynicism. (David Lee -- Focus Features)

_____Online Extras_____
'Eternal Sunshine' Showtimes
Kaufman's 'Eternal' Search

WHAT WOULD you do if you knew that the romantic relationship you were about to enter into would one day end? Not just that it would end -- because most of us, in our more lucid moments, realize that nothing lasts forever -- but that it would end badly, in a wallow of anger, ugly recrimination and fault-finding where before there was only beauty?

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" asks this question, and the answer it seems to imply is that, even if armed with the foreknowledge of your love's doom, you would probably take that journey anyway. Love, it suggests, is not just something we want, but actively need, like food and water, even though, like food and water, it is only the sustenance we derive from love, and not its substance, that we are able to hold onto.

The second collaboration between director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, "Sunshine" is a quantum leap in maturity from their earlier pairing in the comedy "Human Nature," which also dealt with the nature of attraction, but in a far sillier way.

Starring a sedate and preternaturally touching Jim Carrey as Joel -- a schlemiel who elects to have his memories of his high-maintenance girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), erased when he discovers that she has the same procedure done on herself -- the movie tickles your funny bone even as it puts a hammerlock on your head. It's a triumph of visual and literary storytelling, in which the images and the words combine in a brain-bending excursion into Joel's lovesick mind, which ultimately sheds light on the inner workings of our hearts.

Inspired, Kaufman says, by French artist Pierre Bismuth's planned conceptual-art project to hand out cards to people announcing that they had been erased from someone's memory and then to record their reactions, "Sunshine" takes as its premise a technology that doesn't exist, but which, I have no doubt, many of us would opt to use were it real. Our society's craving for the quick fix, and our seemingly constitutional aversion to the hard work often involved in keeping relationships alive, makes the sci-fi-style mind-wipe offered in "Sunshine" seem all too appealing.

It doesn't take much for either Joel or Clementine to arrive at their decision. In fact, the film jokes, Valentine's Day is the busy season for Lacuna, the company that promises to quickly and efficiently zap unpleasant memories of loves that have gone sour.

"Sunshine," which takes its title from a line in a poem by Alexander Pope -- and which gets bonus points in my book for the English Lit reference -- is more than just a clever idea, though. Gondry's stylish execution, evidence of his music video experience, keeps viewers ever off balance as to what is real and what is remembered. And the supporting cast, which features Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood as members of the Lacuna staff, as well as Jane Adams and David Cross as Joel's best friends, is a treat to watch. Like a prettily wrapped package, half the pleasure of this movie is untying the elaborate bow and tearing off the layers of tape and paper.

Of course, what's inside is what really matters, which is where "Sunshine," in the end, delivers its most satisfying surprise.

Neither wholly cynical nor wholly romantic, Kaufman's story is a balance of smarts and sentiment. It's the most fully realized working out of his two favorite obsessions: the subjective nature of experience and the psychological mysteries of pair bonding. Like the lovers in "Human Nature," "Sunshine's" Joel and Clementine are guided by their synapses and hormones, but it is the willfully amnesiac heart, which forgives what it can't forget, that sets the true course of love.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (R, 110 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, drug use and sexual content. Area theaters.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company