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.
Every once in a while you sit down on your couch, fire up the DVD player and watch something that completely blows you away. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it truly affects you as a human being. It takes a lot of extraordinary ingredients to pull off a masterpiece; a lot of sheer talent and a huge amount of luck (just look at the circus parade scene!). The first element you need is a great idea – something that sparks intrigue and imagination. A concept that is simple yet can be built upon to create a complex and intricate screenplay. When a friend of Michel Gondry (the director of Eternal Sunshine) came to him with the idea that someone sends you a letter informing you that you’ve been erased from their memory, his mind raced into action. He contacted Charlie Kaufman, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, who took up the challenge and helped transform that simple notion into an exhilarating and multifaceted screenplay. Once the words were on the page, it was then time to convert them into something that an audience can watch, listen and most importantly, feel.
Ultimately, Eternal Sunshine is a story about love – an experience that everyone will no doubt face at some stage in their journey through life. Inevitably we will one day come across someone that fascinates us so deeply that we feel as though we could spend the rest of your life with this magnetic and seemingly irreplaceable individual. No one can truthfully claim to understand the exact science of love, and in most cases it appears to be more irrational, illogical and unreasonable than anything else. Why we find ourselves attracted to people who are almost the polar opposite of ourselves remains one of life’s little mysteries. Love is completely bewildering and yet at the same token, absolutely fulfilling. It has also been done to death in the movie making world. But unlike the multitude of traditional love stories you see in video stores, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind skilfully dodges all clichés.
Set in New York, the film centres on the life of Joel, your average kind of guy, although very shy and almost socially inept, especially when it comes to communicating with the opposite sex. He’s also not one to run on impulses or gut feelings, but rather relies on logic and common sense. Played by Jim Carrey, this is a character that is very enclosed, only revealing his true feelings and emotions to the confines of his journal. Although he has had girlfriends in the past (his previous partner Naomi is mentioned in the film), they have never really meant anything to him. It would seem that he has never had a serious relationship in his life. This all changes when Clementine enters his normally self-contained world. “No jokes about my name” she warms him when they first meet. He doesn’t know any (a subtle clue that reveals its significance later). Played by Kate Winslet, Clementine is almost the complete opposite of Joel – she’s feisty, impulsive, immature and brutally honest. But despite their obvious differences, they fall madly in love with each other. Things start off great, but like in so many relationships, the initial flame slowly fades away. After a period of trying to get their relationship working fluidly, they take a turn for the worst and following a heated argument, Clementine leaves Joel. But, this is nothing new to moviegoers as most love stories follow this familiar path. However, the film then takes the audience by surprise when Clementine acts as if she doesn’t even recognise her former lover when he visits her at the bookstore she works at. Completely devastated, Joel soon discovers that Clementine has had her memory of Joel completely erased.
Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (played by popular British character actor Tom Wilkinson), the owner of Lacuna Inc., has developed a procedure that uses a specialised form of isolated “brain damage” to erase troubling memories from his patient’s memory vaults. After Joel comes to the realisation that Clementine, being the spontaneous women that she is, has actually erased all memories of him, in an act of self-gratification, he decides to do exactly the same. But as the technicians carefully eradicate his past, he begins to realise that despite all the fights and unpleasant moments the couple has been through, there were also so many wonderful and breathtaking memories that he never wants to forget. So, in an effort to stop the irreversible damage, with the assistance of his minds recreation of Clementine (an interesting notion in itself!), together they try and hide from the erasing technicians in a surreal pursuit through Joel’s mind.
This is one of the most brilliant stories to ever hit the big screen. The concepts and feelings built into the complex script are both perplexing and rewarding. But not only does Kaufman and Gondry tell the story of Joel and Clementine, whilst one plotline is taking place in the mind of Joel, back in the “real world” a whole additional subplot is developed exploring the complicated relationships between the staff of Lacuna Inc. This is a film that carefully bounces between several different time zones. It opens with a scene from the present, jumps back to the past to when the couple have just broken up, then goes further into the past via Joel’s memory, whilst continually cutting back to outside of Joel’s mind. It then repeats the opening scenes and continues the story. But, the beautiful thing is that despite the fact that the timeline is disjoined, and basically complete and utter chaos, as a viewer you never get lost. Kaufman is truly the master of time travel.
The acting in this film is something to be admired. Both Carrey and Winslet totally escape their usual typecasts, and do an exceptional job of bringing the convoluted story concept to life with characters that are believable, endearing, and scarily familiar. The fact that Gonry is able to create a believable and solid relationship between Mr. Ace Ventura and Mrs. Rose DeWitt Bukater is a true credit to him, as at first glances, the two actors seem very incompatible. But that’s exactly the point of the film! It is not the stuff on the outside that counts; it’s the memories and the experiences that should define a relationship. The supporting cast are just as impressive, with Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood (straight from the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and Kiersten Dunst helping propel the plot acting as staff members from Lacuna Inc. Rob and Carrie, played by David Cross and Jane Adams add some comic relief to the film; a couple that seems to be suffering from similar issues as the main protagonists.
Visually and technically speaking this film is also brilliant. Instead of relying on fancy digital special effects like so many other Hollywood films, Gondry uses more traditional methods to achieve amazing results. Instead of using a blue screen, he chose to do the majority of his effects on camera, by manipulating the perspective and position of objects, making use of trapdoors in custom build sets and quickly changing things when they go briefly off-camera. Even when digital effects are used, such as when Joel drives after Clementine following their final dispute, the computer effects are minimal and are mostly used to composite several different sections of video footage together as opposed to recreating a whole scene artificially. This helps to reaffirm that the footage is believable, despite the science-fiction-like storyline plus also ensures that the effects serve a necessary function; that they do not distract the audience from the story. One of the most memorable scenes is when Clementine magically gets from the bathroom to the kitchen and then to the living room – a sequence which was all done in camera with no computer trickery. These techniques also help keep the budget down, which would have pleased producers Steve Golin and Anthony Bregman!
The cinematography of the film (led by Ellen Kuras) is yet another strong point of the film. Most of the camera shots used are either handheld or steady-cam, which gives the movie a very realistic and natural feel. The camera frame is constantly changing, which gives the images an added degree of life. It is also quite jerky in scenes, but for some reason it doesn’t distract. The vibrant costume design helps bring out some fantastic colours – the bold orange colour of Clementine’s jumper and her flamboyant hair dyes give her character another dimension of intrigue and make her standout from the natural, yet very beautiful locations. Dr. Howard’s blue tie is another example of a skilful costume decision that comes out magnificently on film. The way both Kuras and Gondry experiment with the focus of shots is also most interesting, as they tend to use a shallow depth of field for some of the more close up and personal shots, even if that means one of the key actors in the scene is out of focus. The focus is also very slow at adjusting in some of the close up shots when the actor gets closer or further away to/from the camera, which is a welcome change from the always perfect focus selection of most Hollywood films.
Some of the lighting techniques are truly incredible, such as when only a small spotlight is attached to the camera allowing the operator to focus intensively on individual objects and people. Another example of clever lighting design is when Clementine appears to be erased into darkness during the train station scene in Joel’s mind. By simply using one soft edged profile light, the director and cinematographer achieve a look in camera that looks amazing and complex.
The musical score, put together by Joh Brion (who previously composed the music for films such as Magnolia), is one of the more subtle aspects of the film, but actually plays one of the most important roles. The recurring musical motif that first appears at the very start of the film helps set the tone of the film and strongly compliments the pictures on the screen. It’s a very friendly and simple piano melody, which is also terribly catchy. The musical score is very appropriate to the style of the film, and never detracts or interferes from the images on screen. But at the same time it is very manipulative, as it seriously plays with the emotions of its listeners. It really makes you feel for the characters.
Overall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, despite a tremendously challenging and demanding screenplay exceeds expectations in all departments. The script has so many challenges, (for example, if you have somebody having their memories erased how can they still be cognizant of their memories that were erased so that there’s a smooth flow to the story?), and yet Kaufman and Gondry pull it off without a hitch. The film explores some very relevant and very real issues in regards to love, relationships and life in general. As human beings we seem to instantly think about the negative aspects of a person when a relationship comes to an end, as Joel did, in an attempt to make everything “right” in our own minds. What this movie suggests is that most of the time, when breaking down a relationship moment by moment, the good outweighs the bad. Too many moments in life are wasted on logic and commonsense. When it comes to love, one must live in the moment. You’ve only got one shot at life – so you have to live every second like it will be your last. Eternal Sunshine promotes the philosophy of living in the present and not getting caught up in the past. Whether or not you agree with Kaufman and Gondry is up to personal opinion, but there is no disagreement that a lot of time, love and heartache have been injected into this masterpiece of a film.
- Gondry, M 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, DVD, Focus Features, USA.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Internet Movie Database Inc., viewed 23 October 2006, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338013/.
- Feld, R 2004, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The Shooting Script, Newmarket, USA.