FILM REVIEW: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (USA, 2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry

Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood


Science fiction is one of the most malleable genres around: it can be light or dark, scary or funny, insightful or escapist. Most impressive, however, is its continuing ability to cross-breed with other genres, and in doing so produce great works in cinema and other media. In the past forty years we have been treated to sci-fi horror (Alien), sci-fi comedy (Dark Star), sci-fi action (Aliens) and sci-fi noir (Blade Runner).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
is the latest addition to this cross-breed family: being equal parts Philip K. Dick and romantic comedy, it qualifies succinctly as a sci-fi romance. There have been previous science fiction films which have dealt directly with romantic love, but precious few have both the tenderness and intelligence which comes from the match made in heaven that is Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman.Because of its romantic elements, the film has been dismissed in some circles as an essentially shallow exercise, something which is visually enthralling but ultimately little more than a Hugh Grant rom-com with A-levels and shuffled timeframes. Some of the most damning criticism came from Rick Kisonak, who described it as “Love Story with frontal lobotomies” and concluded that it was “not a lot more than a thinking person’s 50 First Dates.”Such comments appear ludicrous even before half an hour has passed. For one thing, you never get the sense that Kaufman or Gondry are being overly complicated for its own sake. The visual and emotional tone of the film is not that of two intellectuals desperately trying to show off. The film is profoundly open-hearted and involving, combining existential parables with light-hearted humour and insights into the human condition which at no point feel preachy or pretentious.

One of the great triumphs of Eternal Sunshine is that it manages to be incredibly complicated and readily accessible at the same time. Like Inception after it, there are layers of hidden meaning within each image or scene, but part of the fun is getting lost in events as the plot barrels forward at a frightening pace. Gondry leaves little visual hints lying around, such as Clementine’s changing hair colour, so that if we stop and question where we are, there is a perfectly good explanation. But for most of the time, like Joel and Clementine, we are simply compelled to run headlong from one scene to the next with little care or concern except for the safety and happiness of the characters.In terms of its lineage, Eternal Sunshine is the film to which Kaufman has been working towards for his entire career. Like Being John Malkovich, much of the action takes place within the mind of its characters, and as with Adaptation we find different shades of the same character coming into contact with each other. From a sci-fi point of view, the film resembles Philip K. Dick in its fascination with paranoia and the blurring of identity, and there are clear hints of Total Recall in both the visuals and the film’s dreamlike state. Even the machine used to extract Joel’s memories of Clementine resembles the memory implant machine used in the Paul Verhoeven film.Gondry’s background in music videos gives him a concise and focussed method of storytelling; when you only have four minutes to get a message across, you can’t afford to be baggy or indulgent. You get the distinct impression that he is unflinchingly focussed on the characters and upon keeping Kaufman’s script moving forward. You therefore embrace his visual extravagance and unusual approach to special effect, both of which are defining features of the film.When Christopher Nolan was shooting the dream sequences in Inception, he strove to film as much as possible in-camera with mechanical effects. He did this on the grounds that if the actors were delivering their lines to green-screen, they wouldn’t believe in the world of the dream, and therefore neither would we. Gondry takes the same approach, shooting most special effects sequences in-camera using old-fashioned forced perspectives (or trompe-l’oeils). The scenes of Jim Carrey being bathed in the sink or hiding under the table have a very organic sense of the surreal they make memories physical rather than whimsical, rooting the chase and its flights of fantasy firmly in some form of reality.The film drifts seamlessly from memory to memory and back to the real world, resisting the constant urge to stop and explain where we are. By the time Joel has begun relating a memory to Clementine, that particular section of his mind begins to disappear; lights flicker off, fences disappear, frozen lakes turn into train stations and people vanish into thin air. Certain sections see Joel revisiting old memories which have fragmented. In one scene, he revisits a conversation in which all the characters’ faces have become blurred, resembling the freaky masks worn by the schoolchildren in Pink Floyd – The Wall.

Eternal Sunshine’s central thesis is that all events which transpire in our lives are at some point in time meaningful, and that any attempt to block out such experiences will only lead to recognition of their ultimate importance. The title, which comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, is deeply ironic; in being able to artificially forget bad memories, the characters are just as distressed if not moreso by what unfolds. The first time around, the sequence on the train to Montauk seems normal and straightforward. The second time round, we watch hindsight playing out and the true meaning and power of this scene becomes clear.In attempting to move on from Clementine, Joel discovers that their relationship (and the memories thereof) was the only time he was genuinely happy. He tries to preserve those memories not because he has forgiven her, but because otherwise his life may not have a cohesive sense meaning. One could almost argue that the film is an analogy for Alzheimer’s disease with Joel as the patient, struggling to remember others in order to make sense of himself.

Memories are a vital part of a person’s identity, and the film does an interesting job of showing how identities can be manipulated. Elijah Wood, in an really creepy performance, uses Joel’s memories to seduce Clementine, copying his ‘chat-up lines’ word for word. His character is desperate to be liked by women, and believes that the only way to achieve happiness is to impersonate other people. It is testament to Kaufman’s skills as a writer that scenes like these are not played for cheap, bawdy laughs – nor instead that the scenes of the technicians getting stoned never venture too far into Cheech and Chong territory.The film is anchored by the central performances of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, both of whom are often incredibly irritating. Like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, Carrey’s wackiness is completely reigned in and he gives a brilliantly well-rounded performance full of pathos and subtlety. Winslet, on the other hand, is allowed to leave her ‘English rose’ image behind and play kooky, wacky and impulsive. But her feistiness and intensity hold our attention, creating a sense of mystery which engages us. The chemistry between these two give us an emotional bond around which Kaufman’s philosophising is anchored. When they decide to give things another go, it feels poignant and meaningful because of the genuine emotional journey we have taken with them.Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a superb slice of science fiction with all the emotional intensity of a Mike Leigh film. It is the pinnacle of Gondry and Kaufman’s respective careers, being proof positive not only of their talents but of the continued relevance of romantic drama. In addition to its exemplary performances, the film is witty, insightful, tragic and humane, often all at the same time. It is one of the best films of the decade, and no amount of selective memory loss is going to change that.

Rating: 5/5

Verdict: Unforgettable

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