An Appreciation – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
It’s been said that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. No film better expresses this than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of the most unapologetically romantic films of the new century. Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by the inventive Michel Gondry, it tells the story of a break-up between two unique and quirky individuals, and yet it is not sad or tragic. Instead, the film smoothly engulfs us in itself, making us fall in love with these characters and the relationship that they shared, with one of them fighting with all of their might to prevent those wonderful memories from literally being wiped away forever. Set within a mind bending, sci-fi universe, the film feels incredibly rich and real; we find ourselves relating to these people more than what we may have been expecting. It is funny, charming, tender, and moving, all at the same time.
A man wakes up in the morning, rubbing his head as if clearing his mind from a daze. His name is Joel (Jim Carrey), a thoughtful, shy, and introverted person. He pulls himself out of his bed and gets ready for work that day. Walking out of his apartment, he comes to find his car having a major dent on its side. He doesn’t know how it got there, and assumes the person in the next parking spot was responsible. Standing at the train station, Joel has an odd feeling. He doesn’t want to go to work; something is compelling him to skip out and travel to the beach at Montauk. Joel chases down the next train that departs, and calls in sick to his office. This surprises him, because he isn’t normally an impulsive person.
Once there, Joel walks along the beach, writes and draws in his journal, which—interestingly enough—has pages mysteriously torn out. Thinking about how sand is overrated and how stupid it was to go to the beach in the middle of February, Joel’s mind wanders to his ex-fiancée Naomi, and how it would be if he tried to get back with her. But before he can dwell on the idea any longer, he spots someone in the distance. It’s a woman, dressed in a bright orange sweater and sporting blue hair. They spot each other again at a diner, and once more on the train ride home. He wants to say something, but is too shy to even attempt. Her name is Clementine (Kate Winslet). She isn’t nearly as hesitant as he is, and as soon as they say hi to each other, she presses her outgoing personality onto him, him retracting in near fear. They converse and grow attracted to each other, with him giving her a ride home. Before the day is over, the two have already established a bond; perhaps there is something here that has the potential to be very special.
This extended opening scene, with all the traits of two movie lovers meeting, surprises us when it is revealed that they have known each other for over two years, and that this scene takes place near the end of their story. They have had their memories of each other wiped clean, and through Kaufman’s incredible restructuring of the film’s plot, we come to learn of their relationship, from how they met, to the lovely moments of their courtship, all the way through their rough and rocky break-up. This information is told within the mind of Joel himself. He has learned that after their break-up, Clementine went to a doctor to have her memory of him erased, and in a reactionary moment of distress, he decides to have the procedure done to him as well. At first, the procedure works wonders, erasing the most recent memories that Joel had of Clementine. However, as the procedure continues backwards through his memories, Joel begins to relive the times with Clementine that were not so bad, to times that were good, to the times that were beautiful. With the “erasure technicians” closing in on the final memory Joel has of Clementine (the day he met her), he has completely changed his mind, and has decided to do whatever he can to retain the memory of her, to remember the love and life they once had together.
The way the film is put together is an achievement of both Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is arguably one of the best and most innovative screenwriters working today, with great films such as Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002) showing a clear interest with toying and manipulating a person’s mind and thoughts. His script here is wonderful in how it plays with time and space. Yes, a part of the film is told backwards, but that story takes place inside of Joel’s mind. We jump in and out during this couple’s relationship, flashing during key moments that eventually led to their break-up. Yet, simultaneously, the reordering of the events also helps to show how much these two loved each other, and that despite them eventually breaking up, the times that were amazing are what we remember walking out of it. Gondry is a visual and creative filmmaker, coming out of a music video background. His work shows how he is able to create a collage-like interpretation to his films with the use of small camera tricks and crafts-school-like special effects. He makes Joel’s memories not so much a recreation of the actual moments, but a representation of how they could possibly be seen inside of Joel’s creative brain. Memories are told and then told again, perspective is played with, and certain events seem to blend into each other as if they were overlapping. At one moment, Joel relives a certain memory, only to look over into another room to see another memory with him taking place at the same time. But this style is used to enhance the tone of the film—there isn’t an effect that takes place that doesn’t have a point. For example, there is a scene where Joel and Clementine converse inside of a crumbling house, which wouldn’t make sense in reality, but within the confines of Joel’s mind, we know what the crumbling house really represents. Although the idea of a story being told backwards (and taking place within one’s subconscious) is something we have seen before, Gondry and Kaufman create this film with such freshness and creativity that it makes it seem like it’s reinventing itself constantly.