Modern Masterpieces #6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Charlie Kaufman is probably the most unique screenwriter in history. From his debut feature Being John Malkovich (in which a puppeteer finds a portal into John Malkovich’s head) to Adaptation (an adaptation of The Orchid Thief in which Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt The Orchid Thief) to recent film Anomalisa (a stop motion animation in which all but two characters share the same face and voice), his films are never less than piercingly intelligent and wholly original. Prevailing themes dominate his work; loneliness, solipsism, identity, and what it means to be human. It’s no surprise to learn that his first romantic film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by French surrealist director Michel Gondry, is unlike anything he or any other writer has ever written, and one of the most staggeringly clever films of the decade.
The first 20 minutes of Eternal Sunshine… act as a short film all of their own. Jim Carrey plays Joel, a quiet introvert who decides to be bold on Valentine’s Day and skip work. Heading to Montauk for reasons unknown to him, he meets the manic (but not pixyish or dreamlike) Clementine, played with dyed blue hair by Kate Winslet. The two talk, get to know each other, and spend the night lying together on a frozen lake. From there, the credits roll, and we see Joel crying as he drives through the streets. Have we flashed backwards or forwards? It’s time to start paying attention.
Kaufman and Gondry are interested in memory and dreams, so Eternal Sunshine… quickly disappears down a rabbit hole when Joel discovers Clementine has had her memory of him erased by Lacuna Inc. After meeting with the head of the company (Tom Wilkinson), Joel decides to have the same procedure done. Here is where the film’s ingenious structure comes into play; Eternal Sunshine unfolds in reverse as Joel’s memories are slowly wiped, showing first the damage caused by the relationship and slowly revealing the happy earlier days. Joel, realising he wants to keep his happy memories, moves around his subconscious with the memory of Clementine, hiding from Lacuna’s technicians.
As Joel sleeps and his memories disappear, we learn more of the technicians. Patrick (an extraordinary creepy performance from Elijah Wood) fell in love with Clementine during her procedure and is trying to recreate her and Joel’s relationship to seduce her. Mary (Kirsten Dunst) smokes pot with Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and flirts with boss Wilkinson, unaware that history may be repeating on her. Lacuna Inc. isn’t just a plot device for Joel and Clementine’s story; Kaufman and Gondry allow us to see the insidious outcome of the procedure through pathetic stalkers taking advantage of memory loss, and opportunistic older men erasing past mistakes. Joel and Clementine are just the tip of the iceberg in this disturbing speculative fiction.
As Joel travels backwards through his memories, Gondry plays around with the idea of subconscious in ways Christopher Nolan would touch upon six years later in Inception. Cars rain from the sky, people and places disappear in a flash, and childhood memories become a theatre for the bewildered Joel as he hides Clementine in memories of his childhood kitchen or an awkward adolescent encounter. Though the basic notion of Eternal Sunshine… is romantic (even after a bad relationship, the memories a person leaves with you deserve to stay), Gondry plays with genre, incorporating sci-fi technologies and jargon with thriller-esque chases through time and space.
Kaufman’s films often feature big stars playing against type or taking on weirder roles than they’re used to, and Eternal Sunshine…’s ensemble is uniformly excellent. Jim Carrey, usually a ferocious ball of energy, plays the quiet vulnerable type; talking in barely more than a whisper, avoiding eye contact, and passively putting up with his other half’s crazy behaviour. He gets to mug a little more frantically when being his childlike self or goofing around with Clementine, but it’s his more introspective moments people tend to remember.
Winslet, meanwhile, gives the performance of a life time as Clementine; needy and demanding, but sensitive and devoted, she constantly dyes her hair and moves from place to place, avoiding the boredom of routine. It’s a performance that’s unpredictable and sympathetic and irritating and warm in equal measures. Winslet was deservingly Oscar-nominated for her performance. She should have beaten Hilary Swank to the prize.
Carrey and Winslet aren’t the most obvious screen couple, but their chemistry is undeniably infectious. Born out of hours of improvisation, they slip into their roles with ease, relishing the chance to play complex realistic characters. Kaufman never creates conventional characters, and Joel and Clementine border on being inversions of rom-com clichés; this is what Garden State would look like if the characters acted like real human beings.
The supporting cast fill out the rest of the film capably. Wood, only really known for his child roles and The Lord of the Rings at this point, does sterling work as the skin-crawling Patrick, a slimy character who lead the way for Wood’s roles in Sin City and Maniac. Ruffalo, relatively unknown at this point, gives his trademark laidback-with-an-edge performance, one that would lead him to greatness in The Kids Are Alright and Spotlight. Dunst, known for The Virgin Suicides and Spider-Man, is wonderfully messy and volatile as Mary, a party girl with forgotten skeletons in her closet. Veteran Tom Wilkinson, so good in The Full Monty, is great as the head of Lacuna, a rigid professional who isn’t as wholesome as he seems.
As Joel’s visions become more abstract, Ellen Kuras’ cinematography becomes more beautiful. Eternal Sunshine… has so many gorgeous moments, it’s hard to pick a favourite; the frozen lake, the disappearing train station and the collapsing beach house, to name but three. Gondry explores the fragility of memory wonderfully, as the memory of Clementine begins to fade. When she and Joel say goodbye shortly before his memory is completely wiped, it’s devastating.
Kaufman ends his screenplay on a strange note most would be too afraid to show. Joel and Clementine aren’t right for each other; she finds him too boring, he finds her too impulsive. They bring out the worst in each other, and yet they reunite, Clementine aware that they will likely grow to dislike each other all over again, Joel unfazed. It’s romantic yet selfish, the perfect closer to this mesmerizing tragedy of a break up film.
Too complex and unusual for some, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that rewards multiple watches. Little moments that bewildered the first time begin to make sense. Confusing plot turns become easier to follow. Kaufman and Gondry were a perfect pair up, ambitious and world-weary surrealists with a better grasp on what it means to be human than most. Together, they made a film that sums up relationships better than just about any film I can remember, a masterpiece about the melancholic, cyclical nature of love.
By Harry J. Ford
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