Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Dir. Michel Gondry
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst
From its release until about five years ago, I think I would have confidently listed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind among my very favorite films. In fact, I know that there was a time when I attempted to create a concrete “top ten” list of my favorites, and Eternal Sunshine was granted a place in the bottom half, somewhere around number six, I believe. My feelings towards the film have not soured in any meaningful way; quite the contrary, I think that I might actually appreciate it more now in my thirties than I did when I was younger. It’s a great love story, presented in a unique and stylish manner, brimming with real, painful emotion, and speaking to the kind of loss and longing that only the most romantic and the most maudlin of souls can aspire to. When I was younger, I fancied myself that kind of romantic, seeing my own failed and failing romantic relationships through the prism of this film. I was taken by the overwhelming feeling of the movie, the aching way that Gondry visualizes a person trying to mentally compartmentalize their crumbling relationship. I’ve certainly gotten more cynical since then, but the film still has a magical hold on me, although for different reasons. I’m now interested in the ethical quandaries raised by the film’s memory erasure process and still incredibly impressed by the visual flair of the movie and the perfect way that Gondry expresses psychological and mental processes in a visual and spatial manner. While Eternal Sunshine doesn’t hold the vaunted position it once did in my cinematic pantheon, it is still a very good movie, and one that I was glad to revisit for the first time in several years.
Eternal Sunshine portrays the beginning, middle, end, and rebirth of a passionate, tumultuous relationship between Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Winslet). Their love story is primarily told through flashbacks experienced by Joel after he undergoes an experimental memory removal process to try and erase Clementine from his brain. After their breakup, Clementine impulsively had her and Joel’s relationship erased from her memory. Upon finding this out, Joel is, understandably, hurt, and vengefully decides to scrub all traces of Clementine from his consciousness. While undergoing the removal process, however, Joel becomes consciously aware of his desire to try to save the memory of Clementine, and, potentially, save their relationship. Joel’s mental avatar starts to fight back against the removal process and tries to secret Clementine away, burying her deeper and deeper in unrelated memories, in a vain attempt to stop her from being erased. However, the process is completed successfully and Joel wakes up the next morning with no recollection of his previous relationship, though he doesn’t appear much better off for it. In the end, it is revealed that Joel and Clementine may be destined for one another as they meet again and rekindle their relationship.
Like Kaufman’s earlier scripts, Eternal Sunshine is something of a maze, inviting the audience to unpeel the film’s layers and daring them to keep up with his script’s twists and turns. Eternal Sunshine retains the emotional sincerity of Kaufman’s film Adaptation. and builds upon that film’s occasional raw emotionality. Joel and Clementine are two of the most relatable protagonists that Kaufman has written because while they are both shown to be deeply flawed people, they lack many of the outward symptoms of anxiety and overarching neuroses that plague more autobiographical Kaufman protagonists. As a result, I think that Eternal Sunshine is likely the Kaufman-scripted film with the most mainstream appeal. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. were both critically lauded and fared pretty well at the box office, but I’ve noticed that Eternal Sunshine is the Kaufman film that most people I talk to about movies seem to really latch onto. It isn’t especially difficult to find the heart within Kaufman’s more esoteric scripts, but Eternal Sunshine is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and I think the open, raw emotionality that Kaufman and Gondry tap into in envisioning Joel’s and Clementine’s lives and relationship rings true with audiences.
I know that for myself, the emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine was what really attracted me to the film in the first place, and what cemented my affection for it early on. The movie came out right before I graduated from high school, and I can remember when the relationship I was in at the time began to sour that I thought the idea of erasing my significant other seemed like a very attractive proposition. My girlfriend and I were both fans of the movie, but when our relationship started falling apart due to my moving to another state and continuing to allow a fairly serious drinking problem to develop, I personally began to identify with the film more and more. I was experiencing one of my first real relationships starting to crumble and I felt like Joel as he travels through the landscape of his mind while his memories are crumbling around him. I vacillated between wanting to cling to that relationship and that person, and wanting to destroy everything that reminded me of her. It was my first really serious break up and I wasn’t emotionally or socially ready for it. Of course, as time went on, I moved on and developed some coping skills and realized that it is actually possible to bounce back from what seemed at the time to be an all-consuming, emotionally devastating turn of events. Still, though, to this day when I watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind I can’t help but think of that girl and that relationship and the important role that she played in my life when I was transitioning into adulthood. There’s a sentimentality to the movie that I’ll probably never fully shake.
I still love the groundswell of emotion that a screening of Eternal Sunshine induces, but I’ve also come to really appreciate the movie for other reasons, as well. Chiefly, I’m always enamored with Gondry’s visual style and the unique way he envisions mental processes in a visual, tangible space throughout the film. The editing and camera movements are incredible, but still subtle. Gondry is a master at creating practical effects and manipulating images in-camera, and those skills are on full display as he creates a dynamic world within Joel’s head. Obviously, some of the film’s more memorable visual effects are the instances in which the mise-en-scene begins to become unstable and, often, literally crumbles as Joel’s memories are being eradicated, but I’m more intrigued by the smaller, more nuanced visual tricks that Gondry plays that serve to mimic the overall instability of memory as a neurological process. The film depicts the nature of memory perfectly, as within the memories that Joel traverses through, Gondry uses filters, color schemes, and trick photography to hint at the influence of nostalgia and association on our memory processes, as well as highlighting the sometimes imperfect nature of memory, and the readiness of a person to reflect back on an experience in a more perfect or sentimental manner. The film, like a relationship, is built upon a foundation of several small moments that add up to a meaningful whole, but the audience is constantly reminded that the recollection of those moments may not always be completely accurate. Eternal Sunshine is a movie about love, and it presents a complex, realistic depiction of a relationship, but it’s also very much a movie about memory, and I think the ways that it represents the process of forming and recalling past memories is even more impressive.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a memorable and enjoyable movie to go back to time and time again. The film’s score is beautifully melancholy, matching the mood and timbre of the film. The performances of its deep ensemble cast are all top notch. Jim Carrey stands out as Joel in what, I believe, is his best performance since Man on the Moon. Kate Winslet turns up her automatic charm and gives a reliably solid performance as Clementine. Her turns of phrase in the film always get stuck in my head for some reason. Kirsten Dunst provides depth and a spark in an important supporting role that turns the film on its head in its last few minutes. Of course Gondry’s direction of Kaufman’s superb script is unique and visionary, as I’ve mentioned. The older I get, and the more life experience I gain, the more depth I find in this film. I certainly wasn’t moved to ponder the ethical dilemmas presented by the prospect of memory erasure when I first encountered Eternal Sunshine, but now, as an adult, it’s all I can think about. While it used to release a cascade of emotional feeling in me, the film now leads me to ask heavy philosophical questions, such as “Is it ethical or even sensible to eschew formative life experiences in such a concrete way?” and “Is there an experience or a person who I value so little that I would want to completely remove that person/instance from my life history?” and even, “What right do I have to the contents of my own head?” Even though it may no longer hold a distinction in my personal top ten list of favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine is undeniably a great movie, and I think it has only gotten better with age. It’s one of the films that I was most affected by early in my foray into cinephilia, and one of the few from that time period that I still return to with some regularity, and it still never disappoints.