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When Clementine breaks up with Joel she hires a firm to erase her memory. Heartbroken, Joel has the same procedure. Halfway through, helpless and unconscious, he changes his mind. He fights to keep the memory of his love alive.
"Everybody's got to learn sometime." Beck's subdued vocal hints at the bittersweet moral of the tale: love has two sides: dark and bright, sweet and sour. Spice it up, caramelize it, change the colour of your hair -- you can't escape it. Eternal Sunshine is a comedy for those who have tried and failed to escape loves duality.
Joel Barish (Carey) wakes one Valentines day and for no reason takes a train to Montauk. "Random thoughts -- today's a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap." He walks a snowy beach, has a coffee in a shop and takes the train home. Naked trees fly by, scratching the sky, the eye. Along route he meets Clementine (Winslet). She strikes up a conversation and bowls him over -- he is timid, she brash; he inward, she skyward. He gives her a ride home and sparks fly; but when she plays a cassette that she's just received in the mail he thinks he's being punked. A voice claims Clem has had a relationship with Joel previously, that she's had a procedure to erase him from her memory.
The story cuts back to the breakup. Clementine has hired 'Lacuna' to erase her memory of the affair. Completely distraught Joel hires them to do the same. They are a small firm in a shabby office. The receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) hasn't done much with her hair, or she's just had a tumble with Stan the technician (Mark Ruffalo) in a back room, hard to tell. But she's cheerful and introduces Joel to Dr. Howard, (Tom Wilkinson) the thin veneer of professionalism fronting this nut-house.
The deceit: that you can strip love of it's pain andyour memory of hurt -- is perfectly illustrated with this hapless bunch. And you see it in the gray sky and the blue ice on the river and on the snowy winter beach -- Clementine's tangerine hair needs these backgrounds to flourish visually, just as love needs loss.
That night in his apartment Joel receives the procedure. He's wired with a helmet that's a cross between original Star Trek and 70's beauty salon -- his brain floats like an avocado on a computer screen -- small orange dots indicate Clem. Stan begins at the end of the relationship and works back to the beginning. We jump inside Joel's thoughts: walls and buildings and Clementine disappear scene by scene. (The best effects are achieved with no CGI at all. Gondry has lots of tricks. D.P. Ellen Kuras' camera seems to hover between movement and stillness like a ghost.) Joel begins to panic: he doesn't want to lose Clem. But he's comatose and can't do a thing; so Clem, the Clem inside Joels mind, suggests he hide her in his deepest secrets -- we journey back to his seminal moments. In his mind he is fighting for love -- in real time he's lying on the bed while Mary and Stan drink his whisky and dance in their underwear. Joel's efforts to staunch the brain-drain work finally and Stan summons Howard. Memories fall then, one by one, until Joel finds himself on the beach in Montauk beside Clem -- it's their first meeting and last memory. 'Remember Montauk' she tells him, and then disappears. And love disappears, briefly, until Mary discovers she's had an affair with Howard. She quits her job, steals the files and informs all his patients. In the gray dawn Joel and Clem must decide if they want this love and it's pain -- or the certain emptiness of eternal sunshine.
Winslet was nominated for an Oscar and she will receive it one day -- when she's crinklier and solidified into star-brick. When it happens come back to this film to understand why. Carey is moving as the introverted Joel -- it must have spoiled him for sillier stuff. Charlie Kaufman & co. received the Oscar for best original screenplay. Kaufman' kaleidoscopic scripts have brought him to star status. Some argue that with all the effects you lose sight of the orchid. But not here -- it's a masterful piece of writing: blending romantic, surrealist, anti-classical pieces into a classical whole.
For the acrobatic script, wonderful characters; for the acting; production design; for taking us to familiar places we hadn't seen before Eternal Sunshine is among the best thirty films of the decade.