47. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

“Nothing fixes a thing so intently in the memory as the wish to forget it.”-Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!

The world forgetting, by the world forgot.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d …”–Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson

PLOT: A shy introvert named Joel and a kooky gal named Clementine with ever-changing hair colors meet and fall in love.  After a fight Joel tries to reconcile, but discovers Clementine has availed herself of a strange and anachronistic mind-erasing technique to remove all memories of him; in a fit of pique and pain, he decides to undergo the same procedure.  But as Joel begins the erasure process, he realizes he doesn’t want to go through with it, and he travels through the landscapes of his memories to find and hold on to the rapidly vanishing Clementine.

Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • Charlie Kaufman came up with the idea for this fascinating tale and co-wrote the script with the help of director Michel Gondry and obscure Parisian performance artist Pierre Bismuth.
  • The title is taken from the classic Alexander Pope poem Eloisa to Abelard, which reflects a number of philosophical and emotional touchstones of the film.
  • Before Jim Carrey expressed a desire to play Joel, the likeliest candidate for the part was Nicolas Cage (!)
  • The scene where Mark Ruffalo scares Kirsten Dunst is completely genuine: director Gondry asked that before each take that Ruffalo hide in a different spot to really scare the pants off her!

INDELIBLE IMAGE: This bold and invigorating trip into the subconscious has a myriad of off-the-wall images that are sure to stick in your head. From faceless creatures to over-sized environments to entire train stations being drained of its inhabitants due to memory loss, there is a lot of weirdness going on here.  But as far as an indelible image, the one I pick is the simple scene in which Joel remembers when he and Clementine snuggle beneath an old ratty blanket and he consoles her after she recounts an intimate and revealing story about a doll she named after herself as a child.  As the memory seeps out of his head and Clementine’s body disappears, Joel crawls through the ratty blanket of his imagination begging to be able to hold on to this particular memory.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Any film birthed from the madcap imagination of Charlie

Original trailer for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Kaufman and surreal visualist Michel Gondry has at least a pretty good shot of being kind of different.  But this movie in particular, a film about memories literally being erased from people like they were organic hard drives, really takes Kaufman’s dry strangeness and Gondry’s unhinged wild-eyed wonderment and melds it to a delightful perfection that muses on life while simultaneously compelling us with images of collapsing landscapes and Jim Carrey bathing in a sink.

COMMENTS: Some would say that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie about
the heart, while others would say it’s about the mind, and still others would say it’s about the soul.  That so many people have such diverse opinions on it speaks volumes, especially when one considers the crux of the movie for a moment: Joel and Clementine are simply two lovers who have opted to forget about one another, albeit with their fair share of doubts left behind.  On the surface, it appears to be little more than a quirky romantic drama, and even with the fabulous imagery it still maintains its simple core of a love regretted.  What makes this different than something you would find in the indie film bargain bin is an intelligence and a philosophy behind it that not many other features can boast.

It is a film that speaks to the sad core of a relationship.  Joel and Clementine’s romance is dysfunctional in its optimism.  It is a love that is woefully mismatched and tries to work against it, and the film succeeds in showing the heartache of the divide between two very different people who care for each other.  Clementine is a punky extrovert, wearing her emotions on her sleeve with a loud mouth and wacky colored hair.  Joel is much more insular, opting to watch his carefree spirit from afar.  Their personalities don’t exactly compliment each other, which explains their later tensions and eventual dissolution.  Most films would gloss over the details of such a mismatch and assume that love conquers all, but the gulf between these two and how it weathers a love over time is a refreshingly realistic touch for a movie draped in the fantastique.

What a fascinating idea.  A concept like this, in the wrong hands, could have ended disastrously, but in the capable grasp of Gondry and wunderkind Charlie Kaufman, this film came out almost flawlessly.  You are transported to a world of dreamlike memories that fall away in the face of a procedure that begins to look more and more like a terrible mistake.  It’s as terrifying as it is tragic, and its inevitability bears down upon our hearts every second, even though we still secretly hope for a second chance between Joel and Clementine.  The world inside Joel’s mind is equally impressive as a visual spectacle.  The way the memories manifest themselves—be they half-remembered words and ideas, sketchy faces, childhood fears revisiting the adult manifestation of Joel, or endless loops of seemingly unimportant details—all are lovingly rendered in a style that is both technically impressive and emotionally stirring.

This sumptuous feast for the mind is bolstered by breakout performances by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  While I never expected any less from real-deal actress Winslet, Carrey genuinely surprised me.  As Joel, he made me feel so deeply for him that it shook me to my core as an ol’ softie.  There is such a vulnerability there that I never saw before, never would have imagined before.  He changed my opinion of him forever with this role, and for the first time I can look at Jim Carrey with unbiased eyes as a seriously talented actor with a range that can be aptly described as phenomenal.  But let’s not forget that Kate deserves her due for being half of this curious relationship.  Clementine is a free-spirit who doesn’t like being told what to do, doesn’t like boundaries, and it hurts her when Joel seeks to reign her in.  There are a number of scenes here in which she showcases an emotional range that solidifies her as one of the greatest actresses of this decade, and even with badly-dyed blue hair I can take a woman like her seriously.

But the peripheral characters also take us aback with their complex lives.  Lacuna Inc., the shady company that erases people’s memories, has an incredibly strange staff that somehow pull off the illusion that it’s a well-run, totally professional business, when in reality it’s the medical equivalent of hiring someone to steal all the photos in your wallet.  Headed up by Dr. Wierzniak and his assistant Mary, Lacuna uses some strange technology to do their dirty work, sending out slacker techies to make house calls and erase people’s memories from the comfort of their own home.  One of the technicians even tries dating Clementine by using the memories takes from Joel as he is erasing them!  Seedy, but it’s not nearly as bad as the relationship between the doctor and his assistant, which makes for some compelling drama.  The climactic scene between those two will have you aching for these characters, basking in their tragic realities.

So in the end, whether Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the heart, the mind, or the soul, its expressive visuals and its candid storytelling weave an emotionally ecstatic film that will leave you fascinated and captivated.  It is an experience that you will want to hold onto in your memories for as long as you can.

366weirdmovies adds: Sunshine proposes a brilliantly simple “what if” scenario— “what if you could completely erase the memory of your ex-lover?”—that is a universal daydream of everyone who’s ever been on the “dumpee” side of a dumping. The movie gives an answer that rings emotionally true, and is at the same time shamelessly romantic, life-affirming, and melancholy. In a crucial way, it’s irrelevant whether Joel and Clementine get together and live happily ever after; the key triumph is when Joel decides he doesn’t want to forget, when he decides the temporary pain of their breakup shouldn’t be allowed to betray the beauty of their shared past, decides he’d prefer to stumble down the hard path to recovering from heartbreak than to take a shortcut that would wipe out something precious. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Synechdoche New York) is often accused of being overly intellectual, distant and tricky; this is his most emotionally authentic and sincere script, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s the one that’s fervently embraced by the widest audience. It’s an amazing and affecting movie, even if you’re not a fan of strange cinema.

As far as weird goes, I find it to be starter-level stuff, more speculative and offbeat than surreal. There is some delightfully resolved confusion resulting from playing around with the timeline, and Gondry’s set-pieces have a music-video type of oddness to them, but once the impossible premise is established the story plays out with a relentless narrative logic. Still, it’s within the weird genre, however tenuously, and it’s such a lovely and beloved movie that I’m afraid readers would hang me in effigy if I denied it it’s rightful place on the List of 366 Best Weird Movies of all time. It’s a great entry point into the deranged cinema of Kaufman and his bizarre cinema kin; starting from here, you can branch out into ever-weirder vistas.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the director always insists on an excess of surreality by pedantically realising visually every strange detail of Joel’s memory-angst… All very wacky and Dick Lester-ish, like a grad-school Beatles movie, and for about five or ten minutes it’s funny and exhilarating. But it’s over-extended, and tends to undermine the rigorous realism which made the idea funny.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

“Filled with the writer’s trademark neurotic characters, grungy atmospherics, and downbeat emphasis on domestic discord, it’s a baroque and intermittently brilliant brain twister so convoluted that it inevitably deposits the viewer in an alternate universe.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“In this season of abundance for amnesiac romances, Eternal Sunshine – with its laughs and its weirdness and its contemplation of some of the big issues regarding memory and identity – is the hands-down winner… a delightful little wormhole that takes us on a journey to another dimension of consciousness.”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Focus Features – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

IMDB LINK: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Lacuna Inc. – the fake website for the memory-erasing corporation of Eternal Sunshine that was part of the original marketing campaign for the movie

Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Essay – In-depth meditation by Roger Ebert as to what makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind such a classic.

The Science of Memory Loss – Slate.com chimes in with an intriguing essay about the realities behind the Eternal Sunshine “memory erasure” technique.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at Being Charlie Kaufman – A fansite devoted to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Here you can find stills, fan art, audio, video, and even drafts of scripts from Eternal Sunshine.

Christian Review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – An… interesting take on the film from an interesting source!

DVD INFO: The original one-disc edition of this DVD (buy), which is incidentally the one I saw, isn’t incredibly flattering as far as the special features go, but I have seen much worse.  It comes with a Michel Gondry-Jim Carrey interview, which is playful but uneventful, some pretty good deleted and alternate scenes, a fake commercial for Lacuna Inc., and a terribly banal music video for a song The Polyphonic Spree lent to the film. The commentary is an acquired taste, but absolutely seminal if you like your commentary tracks. It’s performed by Kaufman and Gondry, and while it’s really quite informative, it sounds a bit like the David Lynch short The Cowboy and The Frenchman. Kaufman is very droll and American, Gondry is very giggly and French, so it makes for an interesting pairing in the recording booth when they’re both trying to relay their own experiences. Recently, a two-disc edition has emerged that blows the previous version out of the water (buy). It contains an “Anatomy of a Scene,” sit-downs with various cast members, some featurettes, and even a screenplay book! If you can, I would buy that edition, but for the filmgoer on a budget, the standard edition is more than adequate. Eternal Sunshine is also available on Blu-ray (buy) and as a rental on Amazon’s video on demand (rent).

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