Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a title that evaporates from your consciousness almost before it’s apprehended—and that’s partially the point of this deft, witty, and vastly enjoyable movie, directed by French music-video ace Michel Gondry from Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay. It’s a head trip.

Possibly the most elaborate romantic comedy ever predicated on the gimmick of amnesia, Eternal Sunshine has a more than passing resemblance to Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, the two movies Kaufman wrote for Spike Jonze. It’s also a notable improvement over Gondry’s first feature, Human Nature (written by Kaufman as well). Filled with the writer’s trademark neurotic characters, grungy atmospherics, and downbeat emphasis on domestic discord, it’s a baroque and intermittently brilliant brain twister so convoluted that it inevitably deposits the viewer in an alternate universe.

The title, which sounds cribbed from an LP by the Quicksilver Messenger Service, is taken from Alexander Pope’s epistle “Eloisa to Abelard.” In the baffling opener, suburban single Joel (Jim Carrey) awakes one morning, and instead of going to work in the city, impulsively takes a commuter train out to Montauk, where he encounters a blue-haired kook named Clementine (Kate Winslet). She’s bizarrely aggressive; he’s painfully shy and simpering. Somehow, she lures him up to her apartment, mysteriously filled with Mr. Potato Head fetishes. Their meet-cute proceeds with impressive speed and then suddenly, an agitated little hobbit (Elijah Wood) is pounding on Joel’s car . . . .

Anyone who wants to experience Eternal Sunshine with a spotless mind should cease reading now. It takes some time to sort out the nature of the relationships, complicated as they are by flashbacks and a free-floating cloud of memory loss. Suffice it to say that Clem has availed herself of Lacuna Inc., a not-yet-franchised neighborhood brainwashing service operated by the avuncular Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), to erase all recollection of Joel. When he discovers what she’s done, he responds in kind—showing up at Mierzwiak’s second-floor office hot to trot, with all of his Clem memorabilia stuffed in two large trash bags. “Does it cause brain damage?” he asks. “Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage,” the doctor reassures him.

Terminal waffler Joel has second thoughts midway through the operation—carried out as he sleeps by two wildly unprofessional technicians (Wood and Mark Ruffalo) with additional kibitzing by the amorous office receptionist (Kirsten Dunst). As the action hilariously oscillates between Joel’s external and internal space, he relives his relationship with Clem in reverse—forgetting the most recent experiences first. Eternal Sunshine is not consistent in its illogic, but there’s no denying the pathos of Joel’s desperate fight to keep one happy memory—people and locations winking out as he seeks to hide Clem in fake childhood recollections or embarrassing masturbatory fantasies.

To judge from the Times‘ coverage, Kaufman may do as much for Gondry’s reputation as he did for Jonze’s. (Human Nature, an unfunny gloss on Civilization and Its Discontents, did neither man any good.) In addition to Kaufman’s script, Gondry has the benefit of a terrific, superbly uningratiating comic ensemble—which includes, in addition to those already mentioned, the estimable Jane Adams—as well as cinematographer Ellen Kuras’s jagged compositions and moody, saturated colors. Where Human Nature was as fresh in its construction as an old episode of Cheers, Eternal Sunshine is a subtle tumult of mismatches. Not only are many of the principals cast against type, the special effects are counterintuitively low-tech.

Perhaps Gondry’s continental melancholy has infused Kaufman’s most tender script. Eternal Sunshine is a conceptual love story, featuring a sensationally ill-suited couple. Neither depressed Joel nor manic Clem is particularly attractive, although their lost-soul suffering is touchingly believable—not unlike the Eloisa of Pope’s poem, both are subject to violent mood shifts. Eternal Sunshine recalls the nearly erased memory of Alain Resnais’s nutty time-machine romance Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime. But even more, Gondry uses the crazy structure of the erasure process to illustrate the fragility of human perception.

Shot through with intimations of mental illness, Eternal Sunshine is scarcely as cheerful as its title suggests (although an Ingmar Bergman remake might be truly sidesplitting). It’s playful and a bit grueling—like love itself—and there’s a sad shabbiness unlike anything in current American movies. “The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost,” Pope’s pining Eloisa signs off. “He best can paint ’em who shall feel ’em most.”

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