ETERNAL SUNSHINE Kate, Kaufman, and Gondry in happier times.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

dir. Michel Gondry

Opens Fri March 19

See review page 35

The first thing to know is that Michel Gondry is a visionary director, as demonstrated by his inventive music videos for Bjork, the White Stripes, and others. With his powerful new film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he has at last made a work with the potential to expose his brilliant talent to a wider, more perceptive audience than the one he has on MTV.

The second thing to know is that Michel Gondry has the thickest, most cartoonishly perfect French accent yee-oo 'ave evair 'erde. His English is excellent, but his dialect is astonishing. Combined with his youthful looks, Gondry's speaking voice gives one the impression of a Tintin-like boy genius. I know he's from France, but it wouldn't surprise me much to learn he was from outer space.

Like Gondry, Charlie Kaufman is also a major cinematic talent. His films, which are distinctive in a way that few other filmmakers could ever hope to be, get better and better as he goes along. This is saying something, since the first one was Being John Malkovich, a stone classic. Kaufman has since written Human Nature (for Gondry), Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now, Eternal Sunshine, which is one of the most thoughtful, challenging, inventive, and affecting films ever made on the subject of love.

Kaufman looks a lot like you'd expect him to look--though not if you were basing your impression on the "Charlie Kaufman" character played by Nicolas Cage in Adaptation. Where his movie version was overweight, nervous, balding, loud, and eager to please, the real life Kaufman is slight, soft-spoken, vaguely defensive, bearded, neatly dressed, and totally unimpressed.

Together, Gondry and Kaufman have made a film that is so moving, painful, and funny, that audience members could legitimately feel changed on the way out of the theater. But the filmmakers, who are clearly operating with some real insights about romantic agony, don't appear to have changed at all. When I ask them whether they were surprised that the film's premise--a man finds out that he has been scientifically erased from his girlfriend's memory--would have such emotional resonance, they act like it's a no-brainer.

"I didn't think too much of the technology that would be involved," says Gondry. "I thought it would be something that would be devastating. To me, when somebody says I don't love you anymore, it feels exactly like this person has erased me from her memory. I totally relate to that."

For Kaufman, the question appears vaguely insulting.

"Everything I write is really emotional for me," he says quietly, after a medium-long pause. "I don't know how people will perceive it or how people have perceived the various things I've written. I know there have been different reactions, but for me it's all personal, it's all emotional. I have nothing else as a gauge in my writing. I mean, that's what I'm doing."

Gondry, meanwhile, elaborates on the devastation angle.

"There is this horrible moment when you realize that the person who has told you many times that she loves you has deliberately decided she doesn't love you... I think women are more inclined to make this kind of decision, like: 'Okay, it's not the life I want, and therefore I can't be in love with this person, so I'll pretend for a while, then, eventually, I will fall out of love.'"

This reminds Charlie Kaufman of a sad story.

"It was a switch," he recalls. "It was a switch that was turned off. I had a relationship with somebody for years, which was this kind of unspoken, intense love between us. This is when I was much younger, I finally told her--I remember we were on a subway platform--that I loved her, expecting to have that expressed back to me. And she turned off, I remember, and she got on the subway and I was like... One of the things we shared was sort of a disdain for a lot of other people, you know? And I was in. Then I called her from a pay phone and heard her talking to me like I was one of those people."

Gondry and Kaufman continue to exchange heartbreak theory for 20 minutes, then the interview is over. Sitting in a room with these two innovators, I find myself questioning the wisdom (often denied, but secretly believed by everyone I have ever known) that artistic and commercial success in show business is the answer to anything.