JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Tae-Suk breaks into a home.

How to find out if a homeowner is away: place a menu on the front door.

Tae-suk makes himself at home, in someone else's home, by showering.

Tae-suk enters, Sun-hwa hides.

Tae-suk stands before a blown-up photo of the model Sun-hwa and takes a trophy picture of himself.

Sun-hwa's face is a patchwork of bruises she has received at the hands of her husband.

In a home invasion, Sun-hwa cuts up a framed photograph of herself as a model and makes a collage out of it. Tae-Suk looks at it...

... and we see in close up how she has asserted control over her own image.

Frames within the frame, as Tae-suk and Sun-hwa try to picture themselves "objectively."

They wrap the old man's corpse and prepare it for burial.

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Tae-suk gets his own golf-ball drubbing at Min-kyu's hands, with the consent of the police.

In jail, Tae-suk practices meditation and manages to conceal himself from his warder using many different kinds of "tricks" until...

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... Tai-Suk is finally pure shadow without substance.

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Once again in her home, Sun-hwa and Tae-suk have physical forms that exist on a seemingly mystical plane.

Min-kyu embraces the standoffish Sun-hwa after the police have released her.

In this love triangle Min-kyu doesn't know that Tae-suk is there and cannot see him.

Tae-suk and Sun-hwa stand on a scale that reads "0" in 3-Iron's final image.

Images from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Joel grabs the train headed for Montauk, on the eastern end of Long Island.

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Joel awakens in his room.

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Joel and Christiine talk in a train car on the Long Island railroad. Is this the first, second, or third time they've gotten to know each other?

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Lacuna sends out a kind of "funeral announcement" about Clementine's erasing all memories of an affair with Joel: "Please never mention their relationship to her again."

Joel is interviewed by Dr. Mierzwiak.

Joel has his memories of Clementine erased.

A fearful Joel and Dr. Mierzwiak confer while the Joel who's at home in bed stands behind the doctor's shoulder. It's a sign that the erasure has started.

Dr. Mierzwiak's assistants, Stan and Patrick, work in Joel's house on what seems to be a tacky process of "erasure."

Joel and Clementine together, in bed.

Her aspect changes as part of his nightmare of loss.

Clementine sits in the sink with "baby" Joel being bathed by his mother.

Dr. Mierzwiak's face becomes a blank in Joel's mind.

Joel dreams of himself and Clementine on a double bed on the wintry Montauk beach.

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The young Joel faces assault by neighborhood bullies.

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Nurse Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak, together. She's had her mind wiped several times to forget her affairs with him.

The house on Montauk beach collapses as the mindwipe on Joel draws to a conclusion.

Kate Winslet plays the type of comedy figure that Claudette Colbert used to play in the '30s.

Jim Carrey plays against type and effectively displays depth, sorrow ...

... and loss in this bittersweet romantic comedy.

 

3-Iron

Even more extreme in his silence than Tony and Eiko, the male lead of 3-Iron (2004) never says a word, while his female counterpart speaks only three words near the end of the film. In this they appear to be part of both a linguistic (or non-linguistic) and a narrative experiment by 3-Iron’s writer-director, the South Korean Kim Ki-duk. He not only makes his characters virtually silent in an otherwise sound film, but also tells a story in which their silence acquires primary thematic significance. 3-Iron, like the director's previous picture Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003), is thus different from Kim’s other nine films (dating back to 1996). (I’m thinking here of Wild Animals [1997], The Isle [2000], and Bad Guy [2002], but in particular of Crocodile [1996], which tells the story of a man living at the edge of the Han River in Seoul who saves a woman from trying to commit suicide, but then proceeds to rape and abuse her — until an odd sort of relationship develops between them.)

3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring contain little dialogue and focus on marginalized or disenfranchised characters who operate outside the main currents of middle- and upper-class Korean society. The latter is a kind of Buddhist pastoral that, in its emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, takes on a spiritual aspect absent from Kim’s earlier, sometimes sex-and-violence-filled cinema. And 3-Iron is an unconventional love story in extremis, yet one that, largely through its silences, takes the spiritual (as opposed to carnal or corporeal) element in love — and life — seriously. The spiritual here is not a stylistic joke, as it was in Last Days. It has something to do with dreams and reality, subjective vision and objective facticity. Thus it partakes of a subject that, to speak only of film, can be traced back to two avant-garde movements of the 1920s and 1930s: namely, German expressionism and French surrealism.

In the first part of 3-Iron, we meet a young man named Tae-suk, as slender and supple as a dancer, who breaks into a number of Seoul’s more comfortable homes when their owners are away but never steals or damages anything. He simply lives in each house as long as he can, bathing and eating and watching television. As a sort of recompense for the owners’ unwitting hospitality, Tae-suk waters their plants and does the laundry; he even fixes things that may be broken, like a clock or a bathroom scale. Then, when he sees that the rightful residents are returning, this lone drifter slips out, onto his motorcycle, and moves to another empty house. How does Tae-suk know no one is home for an extended period of time? He hangs handbills — restaurant take-out menus, to be exact — on the front doors of houses, and if, in the course of a few days, he sees that a particular flyer has not been removed, he knows that the owners are away and he can enter. Naturally, since no one else is in these scenes in vacant homes, Tae-suk never converses.

Just as naturally, we quickly begin to wonder about the reasons for his behavior. We are ready to treat it as just a prankish aberration until he enters the residence of a young married woman named Sun-hwa, whose husband is away, and part two of 3-Iron begins. Tae-suk doesn’t know at first that she is there: she hides from him out of fear, yet follows him about the house, fascinated. And since Sun-hwa is hiding, these two don’t converse. Telephone messages inform us that her husband is desperate to see her, that he is en route home and longs for his wife despite the coldness with which she has been treating him. (With good reason: Sun-hwa’s face is a patchwork of bruises that she has received at the hands of her abusive husband.) Yet she remains focused on, and spellbound by, this silent, precise, strangely gentle intruder, who is startled one night to find Sun-hwa, no longer afraid, standing by his bed staring at him. Even then they do not speak. Each simply accepts the other’s presence — his that of a “punk” housebreaker, hers that of a model by profession — indeed, seems to want it.

Sun-hwa and her husband, Min-kyu, are positioned in the frame in a way that reveals the tension in their relationship. Min-kyu lies at Sun-hwa's feet, after having been felled by three golf balls hit by Tae-suk.

Still, Tae-suk withdraws before Sun-hwa’s husband appears. When the latter does appear, a middle-aged man named Min-kyu whom his wife clearly dislikes, he tries to make love to her — against her will. (He is the kind of man, if there is such a kind, who keeps his glasses on during lovemaking, or the attempt at it.) Tae-suk then intervenes to help Sun-hwa, and it is here that we get the reason for the film’s strange title. Almost thoughtfully, Tae-suk takes a 3-iron from Min-kyu’s golf bag and drives three balls into the husband’s stomach, making him double over. Such an action risks the ludicrous, or would risk it if Tae-suk’s behavior up to now had been conventional. Since it is not, we can view this particular addition as one more oddity. Min-kyu, of course, remembers his treatment at Tae-suk’s hands and later gets the chance to use it himself on his erstwhile assailant.

Golf and the driving of golf balls recur throughout the picture, not just in these two instances. Apparently, well-heeled Koreans, like their counterparts in Japan, have a passion for the game so strong that for them it has elements of a rite (a particularly silent one, I might add). The golf club has an almost ceremonial glow — an earthly glow, and a secular rite, which are meant to contrast starkly with the preternatural rite of passage Tae-suk and Sun-hwa undergo and the transformative glow they take on. All the more so, paradoxically, because of the parallel Kim makes between the title of his film and the lives of his two main characters. For a 3-iron may be one among a number of special golf clubs, but it is also the least used or most neglected of clubs — except in this picture, and except in the cases of Sun-hwa and Tae-suk (as opposed to the third member of this triangle, Min-kyu), whose own respective neglect and marginalization are turned to almost otherworldly use by Kim.

Back to this world, for the time being: after giving Min-kyu the golf-ball drubbing, Tae-suk waits on his motorcycle outside Sun-hwa’s home. She comes out and mounts the rear seat of the bike, but again nothing is said. They simply ride off together — to another empty house that he knows awaits them. Matters darken only when, in one home the couple enters, they find the body of an old man who has dropped dead. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa wrap the corpse formally and bury it in the garden. However, when the dead man’s son comes looking for his father and finds a pair of intruders instead, he has them arrested. Sun-hwa is released to her husband, who takes her home; but Tae-suk is imprisoned after he confesses to the body’s whereabouts, and this marks the start of part three of 3-Iron. (We don’t hear his confession, but we do see the beatings by police that make him talk.) An autopsy eventually reveals that the old man died of natural causes, so Tae-suk is set free.

Yet some of the film’s most extraordinary sequences take place in his cell. Even though it is white, concrete, and unfurnished, Tae-suk finds ways in this little space to conceal himself from his warder. And it is these quasi-metaphysical sequences that help us fully to comprehend not only Tae-suk’s somewhat amused tolerance of the world as it is and his desire to become invisible in it, but also the mystical bond that he forged with Sun-hwa in part two — a bond that itself contrasts with the worldliness of the city through which it winds. Indeed, it is this couple’s very silence that helps to intensify the sense that they are airy dancers to a music only they hear, as they glide through the pedestrianism of everyday life. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa thus suggest visitants, figures in very real surroundings who are self-created abstractions. These creatures who seem to have been waiting for each other are self-created because they believe that the world exists precisely in order for them to disregard it, however much they may understand its practical workings.

What is being dramatized in 3-Iron, then, is an attempt at otherness, the recognition of a private state of mind that may accompany us (as less-than-extreme, or more earthbound, variations on Tae-suk and Sun-hwa) in our trudging dailiness but that we shunt aside so that, daily, we can carry on with the trudge. And what presses Tae-suk and Sun-hwa is not just a hope for escape from the humdrum; it is fidelity to the private self. These two want to live in some measure like others, yes, but they also want to feel untrammeled by the world outside them. It is as if Ariel, released by Prospero, had found his mate in this picture and decided with her to escape life’s tempest. Tae-suk finds Sun-hwa again after he himself is released from jail, and it is 3-Iron’s final sequence that provides the climax to a film which, for a good portion of its ninety-five minutes, seemed only to be neat and clever — not much more than a sophisticated twist on the general run of housebreaker films out of Asia, like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) and Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (1995). But from the entrance of Sun-hwa to its closing scenes between her and Tae-suk, 3-Iron stops being merely clever: it opens up on an eternity that these two characters themselves join to create.

The conclusion itself is eerie yet touching. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa are reunited after he gets out of jail, but she is the only one who can see him. Sun-hwa is with her husband at home, where Tae-suk is also present — and not present: for Min-kyu senses his presence but is unable to see him. Sun-hwa and Tae-suk will thus have their own marriage even while her marriage to her first husband goes on. And it is through the fidelity of Sun-hwa and Tae-suk, each to his or her own private self, that they have managed simultaneously to make a private union for themselves.

One possible explanation for this ultimate union-within-a-union is that, during his time in prison, Tae-suk achieved a higher level of consciousness where he exists on a mystical plane at the same time as he retains the capability of taking on a physical form at will. Or the contrary: during Tae-suk’s imprisonment, Sun-hwa achieved — during her own connubial imprisonment — a higher level of consciousness that enabled her to will him into physical form at the same time as she could spirit him, as required or desired, to a mystical plane. Moreover, 3-Iron’s final image, of the two of them standing on a scale that reads “0,” reveals that Sun-hwa herself has entered Tae-suk’s mystical realm, if not through her own agency then through the considerable powers of Tae-suk.

All physically impossible, you say? Yes, but that’s precisely the point. What is physically impossible need not be spiritually so, particularly in so representational a medium as film where the spiritual can appear corporeal or tangible. Kim obviously knows this, which is why he leaves an escape clause, if you will, for those viewers irretrievably wedded to the material world. A caption at the end of 3-Iron talks about the difficulty of differentiating dreams from reality, which allows for the possibility that one of the leading characters, even each of them, is unreal or oneiric. Ah, it was all a dream, then. Or at least part of it was. But which part, and whose dream was it? That of someone inside, or outside, the picture? (Again, the film gives no visual indications of a dream world.) And is it only, finally, in the quiet of dreams that we can preserve our private selves, unimpeded by the wake of the world? 3-Iron doesn’t say. It just methodically ingests the golf-club business and turns the ritual of this game into an ethereal nod to the vernacular below — or apart.

In the end, the insinuating, strangely enchanting quality of 3-Iron is irresistible, not least because it is distinguished from the start by the wraithlike, black-clad body of Jae Hee (a.k.a. Lee Hyun-kyoon), rippling through empty houses as Tae-suk, and by the equally tacit yet supplely expressive countenance of Lee Seung-yeon as Sun-hwa. They are backed up, as they had to be in their dialogue-free roles, by the natural sounds of Seoul-city, as well as by Slvian’s mood music for piano and violin in combination with the melancholic tones of a female vocalist. But Jae Hee and Lee Seung-yeon are aided even more by the color cinematography of Jang Seung-back. Doubtless cued by Kim himself (a former painter who studied art in Paris and who also edited 3-Iron), the color scheme has a slightly unnatural green tint and a muted, flat look. These qualities make the images appear sylvan and primitive, but only in the sense that, as in medieval drama, they depend for their depth or perspective less on a human (camera-) eye than on the all-transcendent consciousness that oversees the film in addition to pervading it.

I’m not necessarily talking about God or gods here, religion or faith, but I am talking about a higher reality than the kind most materialists and secularists recognize — a reality toward which, among avant-gardists, the symbolists aspired in their paintings, plays, and poems in reaction against the literalness, sordidness, mundaneness, and topicality of realism and naturalism. This is precisely the kind of higher reality toward which Tony Takitani himself did not aspire, seeking instead to overcome his arid isolation only through physical union with a woman, never to cultivate his lone or private self and then join it to another’s in celestial harmony.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I can’t say that the next film I consider, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), is concerned with any transcendental or ultimate realm of experience. I can say, however, that it shares three concerns with 3-Iron: the oneiric, the romantic (again, in the soulful or spiritual, questing sense more than in the physical or lustful, orgasmic one), and the interior — or the interior of our minds as distinguished from the exteriority of the world around us.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the work of the director Michel Gondry and the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Gondry is a Frenchman who made his reputation with music as well as advertising videos; who has directed fiction shorts and at least one previous feature film in the United States (Human Nature, 2001); and has two full-length pictures forthcoming or still in production whose titles seem to suggest that he is continuing to explore this kind of subject matter — The Science of Sleep and Master of Space and Time. Kaufman, who also did the screenplay for Human Nature, is known for his bizarre ideas, as especially evidenced by his scripts of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002). But both these films were self-reflexive without being self-reflective, offbeat without really being — like genuine experimental works — off the beaten path. Eternal Sunshine changes all that.

First, the title itself hardly reflects back to the film world, as do Malkovich and Adaptation. It is the third line of stanza fourteen of a twenty-five stanza, 366-line epistolary poem by Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717), and it is spoken by a nun in praise of her chastity:

"How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d."

So right away, the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind announces that this picture means to be both offbeat or eccentric and important. Second, the film’s first shot is of a man sleeping, waking, and getting up. Ordinary enough, but why does the image seem to tremble, then? Why did the director use a handheld camera for such a commonplace beginning? The film which follows is an explanation, and something more — not a wallowing, as the opening momentarily suggested, in cinematic self-display.

A third signal in Eternal Sunshine, even odder, is that, after the first two hints of strangeness, the story does not begin strangely. The oldest Hollywood plot blueprint is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and this picture is so obedient to the first part of that blueprint that it is initially baffling. Why, prior to “boy meets girl,” did we get those two peculiar opening signals? What happened to the bizarrerie that permeated Being John Malkovich and Adaptation? However, just as we start to wonder if Kaufman has succumbed to convention after the flashy start, his screenplay lurches off the well-worn road of “boy meets girl” — not into mere flash, but instead into the light and the reflection of its own true self.

First, let’s get back onto the road for part one of Eternal Sunshine. Well, almost on the road, for part one could be either a dream or a memory on the part of the male lead, or an unwitting repetition of their shared past by both the male and female leads: more on this later.

A meek, unassuming, thirtyish man named Joel Barish lives on Long Island and commutes to his job in Manhattan. One day, moody because of woman troubles (especially on this Valentine’s Day), he unexpectedly bolts from the station platform where he is waiting for his New York-bound train and scoots over to the other platform for a train headed to Montauk, on the eastern end of Long Island. There, on a lonely, wintry beach, Joel sees a young woman walking past him, and she sees him. They do not speak, but soon they encounter each other accidentally in a diner, on the station platform, and on the otherwise empty return train. We can almost hear the plot needles clicking, especially since the dialogue is 1930s-cute, with the requisite mod candor of the twenty-first century.

The woman’s name, we learn, is Clementine, and she is uninhibited: hence Joel’s perfect other half. She is wearing an orange sweatshirt when we first see her, her hair is blue, and her lack of inhibition, we later learn, extends to sexual promiscuity. She and Joel hit it off very well, as we follow them rapidly through a considerable period of intimacy. But the 1930s formula gets a jolt, for the qualities that initially drew them together become hurdles and then barriers until in the end Clementine decides that Joel is too boring for her, and he concludes that she is too needy. By the time the film’s opening titles appear, these two are breaking up. Although there is no terrible quarrel, the break-up is painful and abrupt enough for both Joel and Clementine. So painful for her, in fact, that she seeks the services of a doctor.

This physician, however, is not a psychotherapist or psychiatrist, but a specialist in memory erasure. And Kaufman’s story now zooms from romantic comedy into science fiction as we learn about the work of brain specialist Dr. Howard Mierzwiak. He, together with his associates Stan and Patrick and nurse Mary (the four of them form a company aptly called “Lacuna”), will for a fee electronically eliminate all of an individual’s memories of another person. Clementine undergoes this procedure to forget Joel. It is successful, for when he and she meet one day in the bookstore where Clementine works, she treats him cordially enough but unfamiliarly — so much so that she kisses someone else in his presence. Thus do Joel’s woman troubles mount, since he has by no means forgotten his darling Clementine. Yet what can he do at this point, except follow her lead and himself visit Dr. Mierzwiak?

Predictably, the good doctor advises the unhappy Joel to erase his memories of Clementine: then all will be well again, or at least even. Dr. Mierzwiak’s new process will induce Joel’s mind to revisit all his experiences of Clementine and annul them one by one. Desperate at the same time that he is curious, Joel agrees to the treatment. Part two of Eternal Sunshine becomes to a large extent the Clementine-erasure in his brain. It is here also that the film becomes its true self, for, from this point until the finish, most of Eternal Sunshine exists inside Joel Barish’s head, in the nebulous and the evanescent, the scary blendings and the ludicrous reversals, the anxieties as well as the wish-fulfillments of remembrance-cum-reverie. Joel thus revisits snatches of his life with Clementine in somewhat warped form, even as the doctor’s process is rubbing her out of his mind:

  • he is with her in the bookshop, and suddenly she vanishes from the shot, as do titles from books and the lettering from signs;
  • objects multiply and disappear;
  • backgrounds get fuzzy, faces become blank or contorted, voices sound distorted;
  • places crowd in and then whip away;
  • a house that Joel and Clementine enter on Montauk beach collapses around them;
  • fantasies materialize — as when suddenly he and she find themselves in a large double bed right on that same, wintry Montauk beach.

Clementine (whose hair during this “dream” sequence goes from blue to orange to bright red to green) even makes appearances in errant old memories of Joel’s:

  • we see her in a sink with Joel when he is a baby;
  • we see her as one of his mother’s friends;
  • we watch Clementine as she tries to keep the young Joel from being beaten up by neighborhood bullies.

And all the while that Joel is under, he — or rather we — can hear Dr. Mierzwiak’s technical assistants as they hover about his inert body.

Now many films have attempted to portray dreams or memories, but usually they falter because they are simply conventional narratives of the flashback-kind or sets of symbols depicted in soft focus and embedded in “surreal” imagery (as in Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet, 1930, say). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has the only dream or “induced-memory” sequence I know that convinces — it is something like traversing a kaleidoscopic nightmare. Its success here is due to Michel Gondry’s virtuosity, together with Valdís Óskarsdóttir’s superb editing. Charlie Kaufman alone may have written the final screenplay (the original story from which it derives was the work of Gondry, Kaufman, and Pierre Bismuth), but it is hard to believe that he forecast on a word processor every visual nuance, light storm, and incongruous juxtaposition that we see in the movie’s dream sequence. No, Gondry is the ultimate artist we have to turn to here.

The whole long passage of Clementine’s mental erasure in fact is something like a cadenza in an early concerto, in which the composer (Kaufman in this case) prepared the way for the soloist (Gondry) — who then took over on his own, here buttressed by Jon Brion’s delicately beautiful, eclectically atmospheric musical score. In the process, Gondry takes Eternal Sunshine far past science fiction into cinematic efflorescence. For he shows us, more seductively, more compellingly, than other directors have done, how the freehand juxtaposition of filmic frames can capture on screen the flashes in our minds that slip between the words. He thus indirectly iterates a truism which needs iterating. Not only is film primarily a visual medium but, more important, no other artistic medium can capture as well, in motion, serially and cumulatively, the unfettered imagistic workings of the human mind — workings that are beyond, or perhaps above, verbal expression.

At the last, Joel has second thoughts about the work being performed on his brain and tries to wake himself up, as well as to retain fragments of his happier Clementine memories. But Dr. Mierzwiak and his assistants strive otherwise, and they prevail. We then see Joel waking up in his own bed (as the doctor had promised), as part three of Eternal Sunshine begins back where the film began: in a repetition of its opening shot. And now we know why the camera was, and is, handheld: Joel himself is trembly after having been through the nightmare of mental erasure. But when did the “surgical” process begin? Before the movie started? If so, this makes us wonder whether the romance of part one of Eternal Sunshine is an unconscious replay, by Joel and Clementine, of their first courtship. Without any memories of each other or of the failure of their first try at a relationship, did they become attracted to each other once again?

Indeed, this is the case, as we decipher that the film started out of chronology — about three quarters of the way through its entire story — and that what we were watching was not the original courtship but its clone, if you will. Thus Kaufman and Gondry open Eternal Sunshine with ostensibly conventional romance so as to draw in the conventional audience, only to spring on them their true, unconventional aims. What appears, therefore, to be a somewhat upbeat or optimistic ending — as the dreamily united Joel and Clementine walk away from us down that identical, wintry Montauk beach until they disappear and the screen turns to sheer snow-white — is no such thing. It’s the prelude to the agonizing break-up we’ve already witnessed. Hollywood moviegoer, you’ve been had, albeit in the service of a genuine subject, for a change (as opposed to the gimmickry of a memory-loss picture like Memento, 2000). The film indicates that the quintessence of life is non-resolution between the insides of our heads and everything on the outside that surrounds us, between subjectivity and objectivity. It also conveys the idea that our memories, even if (or precisely because) they are malleable or erasable, may somehow exist apart from our deeper impulses, urges, instincts, or desires — which cannot be purged. And those memories and deeper impuses bespeak our animal origins in ways that Eternal Sunshine, for all its romantic trappings and quasi-religious title, endeavors to illumine.

That illumining is greatly assisted by Ellen Kuras’ cinematography, which sheds very little sunlight on the proceedings. In part, there's a lack of sunlight because the film is set in winter, in part because, as much as possible, Kuras uses what few available light sources are open to her (as opposed to lighting, or over-lighting, the set herself). The result is color that is so spare, so muted or de-saturated, as to appear slightly out of kilter — like some of Joel’s mental operations. I’m not yet prepared to go so far, as some critics have done, as to compare Kuras’ work with that of Sven Nykvist, who worked his share of miracles for the wintry cinema of Ingmar Bergman. But I am ready to say that she well understands that cinematography — aided as it is here by Dan Leigh’s production design and Gondry’s off-center, sometimes even jagged compositions — can be a form of visual poetry which quietly and incrementally lends a film meaning. Especially a film that purports to be a lively romance, yet is set in the dead of winter, in the coolly antiseptic world of a science dead to the ethical implications of what it is doing.

Jim Carrey might not have been anybody’s first choice to play a leading part in this would-be romance, but he becomes mine retrospectively. Who could have believed that the unbearable smart-ass of such pictures as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura (1994, 1995), and The Cable Guy (1996) could become an actor of some depth, some sorrow, some hunger for verity — certainly enough required for the bittersweet romantic comedy that makes up such a large part of Eternal Sunshine? Carrey sent some signals of this change in The Truman Show (1998) and in 2001’s The Majestic (in which Carrey’s character loses his memory completely as the result of a car accident), but even in these films there was room for a bit of the self-display that he had shown in the past. Here there is no gram of exhibitionism, of mugging and cavorting: Carrey wants only to burrow into the moment and come up displaying — his character.

Kate Winslet plays opposite Carrey, as Clementine, and her performance proves that, contrary to what we might expect of a cinematic virtuoso, Gondry is a knowing director of actors. For Winslet is the woman who played the young Murdoch in Iris (2001) and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995), so her giving body here to a light-comedy figure — of the type that Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne used to play so effortlessly in the 1930s — had to have been helped along by Gondry. Consider: a Frenchman directing a Brit not only to create, for her, a different kind of character, but also to speak with a convincing American accent in a cast that otherwise consists only of American actors.

Among them is a pert Kirsten Dunst in the role of Dr. Mierzwiak’s nurse, in love with the married doctor and herself the victim of one of his memory erasures — after she has sex with him. (She also has sex with one of the doctor’s two associates, while the other associate lustily pursues Clementine with inside information about her garnered from Joel’s “brain-lift.” So much for the romance in romantic comedy.) Before the sex, she quotes to him the line of poetry that is the title of this film, and, guess what, he, too, knows that “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!” comes from Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.”

Though there clearly are no nuns in this filmic narrative, the title — unlike these medical professionals’ knowledge of it — seems to have more than a tenuous connection to the picture’s action. Hence Dr. Mierzwiak’s knowledge of Pope’s line may not be so contrived as nurse Mary’s, after all. For he is the prime mover in this business of removing “spots” from people’s minds, a business that places him, together with science, in a designer role that God for his part would never accept. Eternal sunshine belongs to Him, the holy, and the heavens alone, and the fact that there is little of it in Kaufman and Gondry’s earthbound film speaks for itself.

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