Mark Kermode - The unbearable lightness of being

Film - A sci-fi fantasy that breaks your heart and scrambles your brain by Mark Kermode

Eternal

Being Jim Carrey must, on some levels, be a depressing experience. The better his work gets, the less audiences want to pay to see it. While The Truman Show earned critical acclaim for proving that Carrey was more than just a funny face, it was royally eclipsed in box-office terms by wacky gurning stinkers such as Bruce Almighty and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which relied almost entirely upon Carrey's penchant for rubber-mouthed buffoonery.

Similarly, while multiplex punters flocked to watch Jim make an arse of himself in those wretched Ace Ventura movies, they stayed away from more adventurous fare such as the marvellous Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon or the flawed nostalgic drama The Majestic, both of which struggled even to recoup their costs in the US.

Despite such a lack of popular success with his more ambitious ventures, Carrey, to his credit, has gone out on an artistic limb again with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, although this time the stripped-down budget reflects an astute awareness of the film's "selective" audience appeal (meaning that stupid people won't get it, but hey, screw 'em). Despite a horribly misleading feel-good ad campaign that attempts to sell this as a bright and breezy romantic comedy, Eternal Sunshine (which takes its title from Alexander Pope) is actually a dark, melancholic sci-fi fantasy closer to the paranoid imaginings of Philip K Dick than to the lovable schtick of Richard Curtis.

At its heart is an insightful portrait of a defunct relationship between a lovelorn nerd (Carrey) and a scatty free spirit (played with dizzy conviction by the ever-reliable Kate Winslet), both attempting to exorcise heartache with the aid of a futuristic memory eraser. Yet in forgetting who they have been, and achieving the angst-free "spotless mind" of the title, Joel and Clementine discover some uncomfortable truths about the fragility of the human soul in the absence of painful memories. Hardly sunny stuff.

The Eighties synth hit "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime" quietly reinvented by Beck on the soundtrack may remind viewers of a similar transformation of the song "Mad World" in the sleeper hit Donnie Darko. There is indeed a similarity of tone between Richard Kelly's spine-tingling fantasy (which flopped in America before being rapturously received in the UK) and French director Michel Gondry's radical reinvention of the bitter-sweet screen romance. Other recent cinematic touchstones could include the underrated Cypher, in which Jeremy Northam deleted knowledge of his former life to become an unknowing cyber-spy; the challenging Memento, with its spiralling amnesiac narrative; and Being John Malkovich, in which the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman satirically placed a cast of thousands inside the head of a living legend.

Although it's tempting to heap the credit for Eternal Sunshine's mind-bending achievements upon Kaufman, whose other acclaimed hits include Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Adaptation, it is music-video graduate Gondry who is the real hero. Dispelling the myth that pop-promo directors can't handle complex narratives, Gondry presents a model of near-perfect dramatic coherence that benefits immensely from his fascination with the experimentations of early cinema. If you've seen Gondry's videos for Cibo Matto, Lucas or (most famously) Bjork, then you'll be familiar with the kind of mechanical magic that has become his trademark. Eschewing wherever possible the post-production computer effects that make so many fantasy flicks emotionally insubstantial, Gondry resorts to good old-fashioned physical trickery, placing his actors within the surreal landscape of the movie, thereby keeping them in touch with the reality of their circumstance even as events spiral ever further into freaky invention. It's a technique that enables the film to break your heart even as it dazzles your eyes and scrambles your brain.

Adding to the impact is a splendid supporting cast that includes a gruff Tom Wilkinson, a winsome Kirsten Dunst and an engagingly fidgety Elijah Wood, all of whom inject a winning sense of humdrum tedium into the space-aged antics of Lacuna Inc. Best of all is rising star Mark Ruffalo, who recently showed his edgy form in Jane Campion's erotic thriller In the Cut, and who here reconfirms his status as a shabby icon of cool. The result is much more than just a vehicle for Jim Carrey's best performance to date.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is shaping up as a strong contender for best movie of 2004. Certainly there's been nothing else so far to match its heady blend of bizarre fantastical conceit, down-to-earth emotional truth and refreshing cinematic invention.