(Dir. Michel Gondry, United States, 2004)
Forget Me Not
Sometime around ten or eleven years ago, I began watching movies more frequently, and then, more seriously. It started with trading in the latest superhero flick for recent Oscar winners, then on to the classics, then out of Hollywood and into the world of cinema, then into indie-cred building. My high school age cinephilia was in full bloom. The films that felt most important at the time were the ones I was told to like: Citizen Kane (of course), The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, The Shawshank Redemption, Memento – some of these, naturally, I’ve come to severely reevaluate. And then, in 2004, along came Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My reaction to the film was crucial for my development as a cinephile. Here was a brand new film that looked intriguing, but that no one had provided an opinion on yet. There was no one to tell me what to think. I got to experience it anew. As the reviews began piling up, I remember even as a teenager I intentionally avoided reading them. With such a remarkable cast and not one, but two incredible trailers that seemed to promise greatness, I wanted nothing spoiled for me.
To the say the very least the film did not disappoint. As soon as the credits rolled and Beck sang his melancholic cover of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” I started it over and watched it again. There was just so much to take in! If the first viewing stunned me with its sheer creativity and engrossing performances by its two leads, the second was for trying to figure it all out: Did Clementine’s hair color provide clues for piecing together the disjointed narrative? Were there hints of Mary and Dr. Mierzwiak’s previous love affair? How did they do all those special effects without CGI? Unsurprisingly, that second viewing solidified Eternal Sunshine as one of my new favorite movies. I would go on to watch it several more times over the course of that year, pore over the DVD extras, waste away on message boards asserting unimportant alternate theories (How long have Joel and Clem known each other?!), and pay close attention to Oscar season in hopes that the wider film community would share in my unbridled praise of Michel Gondry’s little film.
Over the years, my tastes in film changed rapidly and often. Christopher Nolan went from one of the most exciting new directors in my mind to one of the most vapid. Steven Spielberg went from greatest director of all time to victim of my pretentious art-house dismissal to a more balanced appreciation of his work. The likes of Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa led me to the lesser known (at least to the general public) works of (Satyajit) Ray, Tati, Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Kiarostami. And, newer films from the two Andersons, Weerasethakul, Wong Kar-wai, Miyazaki, and, of course, Malick disavowed me of the notion that film must be dead in this new century of digitalization. And yet, through all this change, Eternal Sunshine remained. Sure, the classics rarely demand reappraisals with organizations like the BFI canonizing them again and again every ten years, but most films do call for reassessments years down the road. Initial reactions to films are the least trustworthy, and it’s important to see if any given work of art can stand the test of time (a major reason why I abhor the idea of assigning a grade or stars to any given film).
So, has Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stood the test of time? Back in 2009, it appeared on many a Best of the Decade list (including my own) competing with Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive for greatest American film of the aughts. In the months and eventual years after its release, it held a startlingly unique place in the world of cinema: at once wowing both critics and casual moviegoers alike. It pleased the sci-fi crowd with its inventive, yet non-complicated set-up. It was also kind of an alternative date movie. Hipsters latched on to its “quirkiness” with its characters’ thrift store chic and brief references to Tom Waits and The Clash. Charlie Kaufman’s sharp script, Gondry’s warm direction, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s winsome performances won over the critics. In short, nearly everyone found something to like in Eternal Sunshine. And, five years on from that obligatory decades-end exercise of list-making, to draw from Joel’s final declarative to Clem, I still can’t find anything I don’t like about it.
Perhaps what garnered the film the most attention initially was its clever and unbelievably unused until that point premise: what if you could erase the memories of past relationships gone sour? Kaufman’s story, following in the steps of his inferior Being John Malkovich, includes a lot of faux science (memory erasure firm Lacuna, Inc.), but its implausibility is played for the film’s best gags – Valentine’s Day promotions (it is the busiest time of year, you know), grieving clients sniffling in the waiting room preparing to erase presumably deceased pets, antiquated equipment to perform the procedure. Gondry and Kaufman wisely get this phony science out of the way early and leave room for the film’s greatest draw. For even though Malkovich and Adaptation feature equally promising set-ups, Eternal Sunshine stands out because of its primary focus on the relationship of Joel and Clementine, brought to life by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in career-best performances for both. That relational core elevates Eternal Sunshine from intriguing idea to a story of real emotional resonance.
Carrey and Winslet so believably inhabit these roles, that we root for Joel and Clem from the moment they lay eyes on each other. Carrey plays Joel as a smart, yet quiet, insecure introvert who’s won over by Winslet’s foil in the boisterous, eccentric Clementine whose enormous personality may threaten to engulf his. It’s poignant to witness how these differences fracture their relationship in the beginning of the film and then how they complement one another as the story moves backward tracing Joel’s memories of their romance. The chemistry between Carrey and Winslet provides the heart of the film, and when they’re not on screen, we’re in a hurry to get back to them. And yet, another strength of Eternal Sunshine lies in its ability to balance a few prominent supporting characters and a welcome subplot that reinforces the film’s central question: even if we erase those we’ve loved, are we still fated to find them again? Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo are impeccably cast as Lacuna secretary Mary and technician Stan, lovers who supervise Joel’s procedure until he unexpectedly goes off the map. Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) is called in to take over, and things become more complicated when Mary professes her secret love to him. All the while, the spineless Patrick (Elijah Wood) steals Joel’s memorabilia from work to woo Clementine after she’s had the procedure.
Each of these characters and narrative threads are engaging in their own right, but the obvious highlight of the film is the cat-and-mouse chase as the Lacuna technicians hunt down Joel who has since changed his mind about erasing Clementine. It’s a race through their memories as he determines to hide her in a memory where they’ll never find her. Here, Gondry unlocks his imaginative potential crafting beautiful (Joel remembers playing in the rain as a kid) and hilarious (Joel dressed as a young boy pining for his mother and ice cream under the kitchen table) sequences using camera tricks and practical effects giving the film a more tangible, relatable feel. (Forced perspective causes Clementine to appear much taller than Joel as a little boy, trap doors hidden on set allow Gondry to capture Clem’s disappearance throughout the apartment in single takes, the crumbling of the beachside house, to name a few effects wonders.)
Finally, it would be remiss to neglect to mention the influence of Woody Allen’s seminal Annie Hall on Gondry and Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine. Both are romantic comedies with an ill-fated couple at the center (though things end quite differently for Joel and Clem than Alvy and Annie), and both follow a non-linear narrative that engages the genre’s typically anaesthetized audience in challenging new ways. In Eternal Sunshine, it’s sheer brilliance to split the narrative, but not many have effectively wondered why. Like Annie Hall before it, the decision is more than an indie-cool gimmick; it’s crucial to the film’s narrative. Meeting Joel and Clem for the first time as they meet for the second (or third, or fourth, or whatever…) strategically posits the viewer on their side. We see what a great couple they could make, so it’s even more hard-hitting when we soon learn that they’ve split up. But, we’re also provided a rare glimpse of their personalities, their ticks, the things that will eventually worm their way under their partner’s skin. We want them to be together, but we also understand that it’ll be hard. But, again, Gondry and Kaufman reaffirm Annie Hall’s “we need the eggs” denouement in the finale of Eternal Sunshine as well. They may grow tired of each other or become restless, but the fact that they agree to give it another shot suggests that Eternal Sunshine is a celebration of relationships too.
So, just as Joel and Clementine are ultimately incapable of forgetting what they once had (“Meet me in Montauk…”) so too can I not easily forget the impact Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has had on me as a long-time lover of film. It holds a special place with only a precious few other films that shaped my growing cinephilia and helped show me that the movies offered much more than mere entertainment. It’s a film I could probably never dislike or wholly criticize, but that’s okay. Every good film lover needs those movies that are close to the heart or difficult to evaluate objectively. It’s part of what makes art art – how we see it and how it has an impact on us as the viewer. If Eternal Sunshine led me to other, better films and still continues to affect me and demand my attention to this day, then it’s assuredly a film I’d never want to forget.