This film was written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and was the break-through feature from director Michel Gondry (Human Nature, and some of the most incredible music videos ever made including ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ and ‘The Hardest Button To Button’ by The White Stripes, and ‘Star Guitar’ and ‘Let Forever Be’ by the Chemical Brothers).
And I tell you what, it certainly picks you up by the scruff of the neck and lets you know it is the deranged love-child of Kaufman and Gondry. This film is one of the purest and most natural collaborations of writer and director of the last 30 years.
The plot revolves around the broken-down relationship of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), and their decision to wipe their memories of each other (and every aspect of their relationship) through a company that specialises in this sort of thing. This is a Charlie Kaufman film, remember.
The film opens however, in a very un-Gondry style. In fact the first 16 minutes (the first reel of the physical film) contain no credits, and a very subdued, realisticl visual style. The lighting is natural, and the only visual wonder comes from the beauty of the physical locations of the isolated beach in Montauk and a ethereal frozen lake upon which our star-crossed lovers have a very kooky and ‘indie’ night picnic and fall in love. Unbeknownst to them however, they have done all of this before.
Then the credits roll, and we are thrown into full-on Gondry mode as we are shown the story that led to Joel and Clementine finding each other (again). The history of their relationship is shown backwards as Joel’s memories are slowly erased one by one. While this is going on, Joel’s sub-conscious self is racing through his mind trying to save the memories having decided that he doesn’t want to lose the good ones. Sadly, it’s all or nothing in this science.
There are some breath-taking visual set-pieces that include cars raining from the sky, as well as some more subtle touches where, for example, adult Joel is inserted into his own childhood. The fact that Gondry achieved most of this without a hint of CGI is testament to the imagination at work here. In a scene where Joel walks in on his consultation with Dr Mierzwiak (played with typical pathos and gravitas by Tom Wilkinson – the British thespian who’s excellent American accent has allowed him to carve out a career in the US in exactly this type of role) rather than use a bit of simple camera trickery to have two Joel’s in the scene – Carrey physically played both roles at the same time by standing up and putting on a hat.
Despite all this, it’s the performances that really lift this film into the upper reaches of cinematic brilliance. Jim Carrey plays the vulnerable and understated everyman that he showed us in The Truman Show. The kind of performance that makes you want to give him an almighty slap when you see him turn up in ‘comedies’ like Me, Myself, & Irene. And Kate Winslet is a revelation, in a roll that she has previously stated is her favourite performance. She actually plays it very much like a more Jim Carrey character, but with the depth and mystery of an Oscar-winning actress. She is funny, and flighty, and exasperatingly kooky – but you can’t help but fall in love with her. Just like Joel.
My one small criticism of the film is that at times looking back through their relationship you wonder why Joel is bothering to try and save the memories. The bad times seem to out-weigh the good, and at times they magnify their very worst instincts in each other.
It makes you wonder why they decide to give it another go, despite knowing that they will almost certainly make the same mistakes again. By wiping their memory, they are doomed to make the very same mistakes all over again and we are going to be in the same place in another 2 years time.
But maybe that is the point. That no matter what mistakes you make in a relationship – isn’t the existence of the relationship alone worth something? In a universe where we are mere specks of insignificance, is finding a few moments of happiness together with a fellow speck really what life is all about?