"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" goes by like a fevered dream of love, but one you remember vividly, with profound pleasure. A romantic comedy unlike any other, this gorgeous phantasmagoria, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Michel Gondry and shot by Ellen Kuras, takes a question that's been posed by poets across the ages -- of what is love compounded? -- and examines it, postmodern style, through fanciful high-tech scans of the memory traces in a scorned lover's brain.
The premise is fairly simple, though it's set forth in a Mobius-strip narrative that can be befuddling unless you open yourself to the surfeit of charged images, leaving matters of internal logic for later. Jim Carrey's shy guy, Joel, receives a notice from a mysterious company, Lacuna Inc. that his flaky girlfriend, Kate Winslet's Clementine, has chosen to have all memories of him erased from her brain. (If memory serves, Lacuna qualifies as a spinoff of the Lester Corp., that mysterious company situated between the seventh and eighth floors in Mr. Kaufman's script for "Being John Malkovich.") Undone by the rejection and desperate to forget her, Joel implores the people at Lacuna to perform the same service for him, which they do, though with mind-bending complications.
I must confess that I approached "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" -- the title is taken from Alexander Pope's heroic poem "Eloisa to Abelard" -- with guarded expectations. Mr. Kaufman has written one audacious and/or precocious feature film after another: "Being John Malkovich" (which included an Eloise-and-Abelard puppet show); "Human Nature" (which Mr. Gondry directed); the intriguing if erratic "Adaptation" and the clever, cluttered "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." In each case, though, the exhilaration of watching his wonderfully cockeyed ideas come to life has given way to frustration and/or letdown. Whether or not there are second acts in American lives, there have been no solid third acts in Charlie Kaufman scripts.
Until now. In "Eternal Sunshine," Mr. Kaufman rides his hobby horses -- whimsical surrealism, acrobatic or elastic time, science or psychology reshaped by blithe fantasy -- to a photo finish in which almost everything is worked out elegantly. And the best thing about the ending, which casts the beginning in an eerie new light, is its heart-stopping romanticism. I'm not going to tell you how, against all odds, the movie manages to pull this off, but part of the magic lies in an exquisite encounter in a hallway toward the end, after many convolutions of the plot. It's a generic romantic moment, up to a point. Clem is about to take her leave when Joel says "Wait," and she asks "Why?" In the standard version of the scene, he would tell her why, and she would respond, but not this time. "I don't know," Joel says quietly, baffled by his own confusion. "Just wait... for a while." The wait is worth its weight in gold.
So far I've concentrated on the writer's contributions to "Eternal Sunshine," which, unlike most machine-made productions these days, is a writer's movie. (Mr. Kaufman wrote the script from a story he developed with the director, and with the French artist Pierre Bismuth.) But it's also a director's movie, an actors' movie and a cinematographer's movie, as well as a movie that owes much to its editor, Valdis Oskarsdottir, its production designer, Dan Leigh, and to Jon Brion, who did the original score. In other words, it's one of those rare collaborations that artists dream of, and that film lovers crave. (Focus Features is taking a brave gamble by opening "Eternal Sunshine" wide, in some 1,200 theaters. I hope it will find the same sort of audience that embraced the elusive beauties of "Lost In Translation.")
In this film of flawless performances, the most important influence is the director's unseen hand. Michel Gondry seems to have created a playground in which his…