Michel Gondry's first collaboration with contemporary Hollywood's most original screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, was 2001's Human Nature, a film that never received a theatrical release in the UK and sat in unfavourable comparison with the films the writer made with Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation).
Undeniably, Human Nature was a disappointment - primarily because it didn't capture the genius Gondry had displayed in his innovative, inventive pop promos for the likes of Björk, Massive Attack, Daft Punk and Kylie Minogue. Thankfully, that problem is rectified here. Furthermore, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind boasts a quality cast and has leading man Jim Carrey burying that irritating comic persona under a compelling piece of characterisation.
Carrey plays Joel Barish, a reserved, repressed New Yorker who's at his most expressive when musing to himself or scribbling in his journal. He's a decent man, but his introspection exasperates his aggressive, extrovert girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet) to the point that she's had enough. Their relationship deteriorates to such an extent that Clem takes advantage of a procedure offered by Lacuna Inc, a "revolutionary painless non-surgical memory-erasing process".
When Joel visits Clem at work to try and make amends for a falling out they had, she doesn't recognise him. Joel only discovers the truth when friends show him a card from Lacuna informing him he's been erased from Clem's memory and shouldn't try to contact her. Heartbroken and desperate, Joel decides to try the procedure for himself, despite his incredulity. "This is a hoax right? There's no such thing as this," he says to Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Wilkinson), the genial, paternal inventor of the system.
To initiate the process, Mierzwiak's employees Stan (Ruffalo), his lover and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Dunst), and assistant Patrick (Wood) visit Joel as he sleeps. The plot thickens, however, when it transpires that Patrick has stolen Joel's personal effects from his relationship with Clem and is using them to woo her himself. Worse still, as Stan begins to erase Joel's memories, starting from the present and working backwards, Joel rediscovers the good things he had with Clem. Desperately, trapped in his own unconscious, Joel tries to stop the destruction of his memories.
It's the combination of a framing narrative, set in the real world, and the action that takes place within Joel's mind (which skitters around as our hero tries to escape deeper into his memory) that gives Kaufman and Gondry's film its most marked idiosyncrasy. As well as offering Kaufman's requisite look at the boundaries of fantasy and reality, it's also perfect for Gondry's own brand of distinctive storytelling ploys, employing some wonderfully lo-fi but amazingly clever trickery.
Overlapping and cross-cutting have been a mainstay of his video work - a camera browsing round a tower block for Massive Attack's 'Protection', Kylie encountering versions of herself for 'Come Into My World', Dave Grohl segueing in and out of dreams for 'Everlong'. The devices he created and expertly exploited in the promos are expanded and honed for Eternal Sunshine, creating a unique feel as he realises Kaufman's non-chronological, consciousness/unconsciousness-inhabiting script.
However, there's a lot more to the film than technique. Arguably, this is Kaufman's most humane work yet, presenting genuine emotional circumstances within its bizarre, semi-sci-fi scenario. There's a moving realism to Joel and Clem's romance and the problems they face in their relationship - ordinary stuff like settling into routines, communicating in different ways, being distanced by things unsaid, as well as the heavier implications of mental illness. Human Nature was arguably overwhelmed by its wackiness, and even Being John Malkovich is unsubtle in comparison with Eternal Sunshine. It's a slow-burner initially, but ultimately a gentle, tender portrayal of relationships and a remarkable romantic comedy.