Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director : Michel Gondry
Screenplay : Charlie Kaufman (story by Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry & Pierre Bismuth)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Jim Carrey (Joel Barish), Kate Winslet (Clementine Kruczynski), Mark Ruffalo (Stan), Elijah Wood (Patrick), Kirsten Dunst (Mary), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Howard Mierzwiak), Thomas Jay Ryan (Frank), Jane Adams (Carrie), David Cross (Rob)
In his previous screenplays, particularly Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), Charlie Kaufman played with our heads, which he does again in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, except this time he also plays with our hearts. Kaufman has teamed again with director Michel Gondry, who made his directorial debut with Kaufman’s script for Human Nature (2001), and the result is a mind-bending, heart-tugging ode to the highs and lows of romantic love.
The story opens with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) making a sudden decision to skip out on work and ride a commuter train out to Long Island where fate seems determined to cross his paths with Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a blue-haired free spirit whose entrancing openness is the polar opposite of Joel’s shy timidity. They end up spending the day together, and it looks like the beautiful beginning of an unlikely romance.
But, Kaufman and Gondry then pull the first of their many narrative tricks by cutting directly from the meet-cute to Joel driving home in anguish an indeterminate amount of time later. Apparently, the relationship has ended, and it has ended badly. Thus, within the film’s first 15 minutes, we have gone from the high to the low with no middle, which is a jarring narrative conceit, but one that is crucial for setting up the emotional resonance of the rest of the film.
Unlikely as it seems, the story hinges on a sci-fi concept that’s presented in such a mundane way that it is imminently believable. Clementine enlists a company called Lacuna Inc. to literally erase Joel from her memory. Anyone who can remember the pains of the immediate aftermath of a bad breakup will immediately reflect on what a seemingly wonderful opportunity that would be—to get rid of all the agony and regret in one night of mechanical brainwashing, the danger of which is “on par with a heavy night of drinking,” as Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the head of Lacuna, says.
And, of course, anyone who has ever been in that situation will also recognize how irrational our behavior can be, how we’re willing to do anything to rebuild our shattered romantic egos and “get back” at the other person, however much we may still love him or her. Thus, once Joel finds out that he has been erased from Clementine’s memory, he makes the rash decision to erase her from his—so there! If she isn’t going to be burdened with the memories of their failed relationship, than neither is he. So, he goes to the tiny, humdrum offices of Lacuna and signs up for the procedure, which involves two technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) coming to his house at night and erasing all his memories of Clementine while he sleeps.
At this point, the film then moves inside of the labyrinth of Joel’s head, where we see him interacting with his memories as they are erased one by one. It is here that we get to experience the middle of the relationship that was skipped over at the beginning of the film (or, at least, Joel’s memory of it), except that we see it in running backwards, with the worst memories from the end erased first. As we see each piece of the puzzle, we start to put together the essence of Joel and Clementine’s relationship and why it unraveled, and we eventually realize that everything we assumed we knew at the beginning isn’t quite right.
Once his memories start disappearing, though, Joel realizes he’s made a mistake—that he doesn’t want to lose what he remembers of Clementine because so many of them are good. What Joel realizes—too late, it appears—is that romance is both agony and ecstasy and the two are so deeply intertwined that they blur into each other in unimaginable ways. Gondry, a gifted visualist who got his start in music videos, finds consistently clever ways to envision Joel’s mindscape and how he and Clementine (or his memory of her) try to work against the Lacuna technicians to preserve what they can. At one point, he drags her into memories of his childhood where she doesn’t belong, thus hoping to evade the memory map the technicians use to determine what to delete and what not to. The sometimes painterly, sometimes radically discontinous imagery used to depict the inner workings of Joel’s mind are brilliant stuff, and it’s all the more impressive if you know that Gondry achieved virtually all of the effects in-camera, instead of relying on digital trickery.
Although Kaufman wrote the screenplay, the original story was concocted by Pierre Bismuth, a Frenchman and friend of Gondry’s. The basic scenario is reminiscent of the Left Bank group of the French New Wave (Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, and particularly Chris Marker) and their obsession with memory, identity, and the impossibility of ever truly discerning between the real and the imaginary. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, memory becomes the key to identity, which is underscored by a subplot involving a Lacuna secretary named Mary (Kirsten Dunst) that poignantly foregrounds how the selective erasure of memory could forever alter our perception of who we are. For Joel, his memories of Clementine become a treasure to be cherished only after he makes the foolish decision to throw them away in some of kind of feeble attempt at retribution that Clementine will never experience because she’s already erased him; thus, it’s just an impotent, self-pitying gesture.
All of this makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sound heady and abstract, but it’s not. More so than any of Kaufman’s other films, it is a completely accessible romance, one that strikes you in the heart as much it does in the mind. Much of this can be attributed to the fine performances by Carrey and Winslet. Carrey effectively keeps his mania in check and taps into the recognizable everyman quality that was used to such great effect by Peter Weir in The Truman Show (1998) and was abused so sappily by Frank Darabont in The Majestic (2000). This is easily one of his best performances, as he captures Joel’s timidity and inner conflict without delving into pathos. Winslet, on the other hand, captures the beautiful essence of Clementine’s spontaneity without making her seem overly flighty. It’s not hard to see why they would be attracted to each other: Joel helps bring Clementine down to earth and she helps bring him out of his shell. In that sense, they compliment each other, and their scenes together have a wonderful chemistry, both when they’re in love and when they’re falling apart.
The title of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—for my money, one of the best movie titles in years; thank God some executive didn’t make them change it to sound more “marketable”—is from a line in “Eloisa to Abelard,” a poem by Alexander Pope. The poem takes the form of a love letter written by a woman who is tormented by the memories of a relationship, thus it is immediately clear how the film is thematically linked to the poem. The line about “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” was part of Eloisa’s prayer to be rid of the memory of Abelard so she could get on with her life, which is precisely what both Joel and Clementine attempt to do. Their desire for a “spotless mind” is an attempt to erase pain, but in doing so they risk erasing passion, as well. There can be no spotless mind, they learn, but more importantly, it’s not something they should even desire.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images Copyright ©2004 Focus Features