View Full Version : The poetry of memory meltdown

Chris Knipp
03-28-2004, 02:24 AM
The nice thing about this collaboration between French video ace Michel Gondry and head-trip screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is that it's so sad and human. The sci-fi games and convoluted cleverness don't get in the way of a basic evocation of the messy, ambivalent end of an intense affair. Jim Carrey more ordinary and believable than usual and Kate Winslet as vivid and beautiful as always somehow emerge from all the stylized modernistic craziness looking and feeling very much like a painfully real couple of lovers.

We don't know what the chronology is till later but it goes backward. The opening scenes of Carrey meeting Winslet in the Montauk train station have great vividness. She is too quirky and forward and he is too shy and hangdog. They fall in love. The centerpiece is a visit to a sleazy local brain mechanic who erases memories. Kate's character has already done it to eliminate Jim. He goes to end his suffering by having her excised. The conceit we are to accept is that while asleep or drugged for the brainwash Carrey's character has second thoughts and concentrates mightily to reverse everything. At the end we find that he hasn't quite succeeded. They've forgotten each other. But they manage to meet and fall in love a second time and that's the sequence with which the movie has begun.

The story is nothing if not intricate. In its sequencing of scenes, it's arguably more complicated than any of Kaufman's other filmed screenplays. But the focus is on the simple, familiar experiences of lovers: falling, fighting, parting, second thoughts, trying to forget, trying to remember. The sc-fi part is a metaphor for all that.

This package may be too tricky and scary to make a great date movie for the average couple, but anybody's memories of lost loves and the longing to bring them back -- can very easily be teased out by watching Joel and Clementine's ordeal. In the filmmakers' neat blend of conceptual and emotional, tricky theoretical stuff is planted in your mind embodied in the busy succession of intense, funny-depressing everyday scenes. While we're watching events inside Joel's brain as he's in his bed being "treated" by the Lacuna company's memory erasers, we see books and walls and even faces go blank as the erasing takes effect, while Joel and Clem frantically scramble away to save themselves from the faded memory and reassemble somewhere in the mind where the technicians won't look. It's a vivid evocation of how memories fade and how we struggle to keep emotions and images alive when a relationship has lost its freshness in real time.

The result is as clever as it is touching. The strong secondary characters, the amiable quack doctor played by Bill Wilkinson, the bespectacled technician Fink (Mark Ruffalo), the fawning secretary (Kirsten Dunst) and the assistant called Patrick who's trolling for Joel's girl (Elijah Wood) keep the love story from ever seeming solipsistic, or even beautiful. Or for that matter, even important: Joe's home brainwashing session, from the point of view of Fink, Patrick, and Miss Dunst, is little more than an occasion to engage in their own shenanigans. In a way these characters are like the buffoons that hover around the periphery of tragic heroes in a Shakespeare play to keep its doings from being too formal or too solemn for us groundlings.

The Gondry-Kaufman collaboration is at least as effective as the Jonze-Kaufman and Clooney-Kaufman ones. But shenanigans aside, is it fun? More like pleasing torture, it seems. A message board contributor calls it "a headache. A beautiful, inspiring, addictive headache.' Somebody else writes that `old people' (probably anybody over 40) `hate' the movie. `Young people,' who `love' it, get excited trying to figure it out. What tape was Joel throwing out of the car in that early scene? they ask. Does Clem pursue Joel differently the second time from the first? Above all, how could Clementine's message in a dream during Joel's brainwashing to `meet me in Montauk' work?

You don't have to be young to love this movie, but you may have to be a bit naive to worry much over such questions. It's just a movie and an unusually farfetched one but what makes it so good is the way the couple's emotions feel so genuine throughout, not how all the story elements gibe. Some of them may not. Gondry confirms their reality memorably however by banishing Matrix gloss in favor of a conceptual world that's as drab and clunky looking as American Splendor's, but enriched by Kaufman's conceptual tricks and a surprising mix of humor and sadness. A superb film, and some of its stars' best work. It's impossible to do justice to it in any description, though much good stuff has already been written. Just see it.