Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
It’s finally time to look at Charlie Kaufman as a serious screen artist.
The scribe who gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation has always been imposingly intelligent, clever, and inventive in both his conceits and plots, but it was easy to question his heart; both of those movies had a cold, dead space in their rib cages. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind hinted at a greater understanding of the human condition, but it spoke mostly of emptiness, self-delusion, and desperation.
Now we have Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a title that guarantees shitty box office. And what a shame, because Kaufman finally shows that he has more to offer than left-field premise and ambitious narrative structure.
The movie, directed with sustained panache by music-video visionary Michel Gondry, is emotionally knowing and quietly resonant. And although it’s dressed up with the expected Kaufman tricks and convolutions, it has the same low-key-tearjerker quality of Lost in Translation: Both movies want to draw a single tear from your ducts, and they expertly succeed.
There’s an ache at the center of Eternal Sunshine, an intense yearning to re-capture love and happiness that have slipped through the fingers. What’s particularly poignant is that this isn’t a story in which the protagonists have thrown away their love or done anything obvious to doom the relationship. The movie understands that time and circumstance have a way of eroding even strong bonds.
Kaufman’s script is smart and true about love and friendship, which is surprising considering that most of his past characters — self-involved, self-loathing boors — have been incapable of succeeding at even the rudimentary elements of healthy relationships.
Joel (Jim Carrey) is different. He’s awkward and ... nice — to a fault. He’s about as ordinary as ordinary can be, and I doubt it’s an accident that Kaufman offers few details about his life or that Carrey plays him as an everyman with a sheepish smile.
Joel wakes up as the movie begins. It’s Valentine’s Day. He gets ready for work. He goes to the train station and, on a whim, bolts, ending up on a wintry beach instead of at his office. He spies a woman (Kate Winslet) with an unnatural hair color, and they play trying-not-to-appear-interested peek-a-boo on the platform and the train.
They eventually strike up a conversation. Her name is Clementine, and she and Joel end up spending the day (and night) together.
So far, so straightforward. But the next morning, when Joel drops off Clementine at her apartment, a man who bears a striking resemblance to Frodo knocks on Joel’s car window, looking puzzled and troubled. “Can I help you?” Frodo asks, and the audience doesn’t have time to consider how odd that question is — because Kaufman’s game has begun.
As many well-informed moviegoers know, it turns out that Joel and Clementine aren’t strangers at all. They’d been lovers for two years, and when they broke up, she went to a specialist and had all memories of him erased. To spite her, Joel goes to the same doctor to wipe her out.
Most reviewers will note at this point in the plot summary that Joel has a change of heart mid-erasure and begins a desperate struggle to save his memories. But the reason for that switch is worth exploring, because it’s one of those little details that Kaufman nails. Joel doesn’t decide that he still loves Clementine, and he doesn’t do anything so intellectual as recognizing the memories of her as an essential part of himself. Instead, he figures out in his not-fully-unconscious sleep that one of the memory technicians is wooing Clementine using his journal, his words, and his techniques, and he gets jealous.
How Gondry films what happens in Joel’s mind from this point forward is nothing short of astonishing, both in terms of the visualization and the sustained level of creativity; it’s akin to cubing the short sequence in Being John Malkovich in which Malkovich enters his own brain. Joel’s memories are like a maze, and he’s trying to find a place to hide Clementine while technicians pick her off as in a video game.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the rare movie in which the writer and director deserve roughly equal credit for the end product. While Kaufman’s script is a beautiful combination of storytelling, ideas, and emotions, it would fall flat without Gondry’s work.
The director’s contribution is somewhat surprising, because although many of his previous efforts are undoubtedly brilliant, there was little indication that he could keep up that quality for nearly two hours.
Gondry’s music videos are triumphs of short-form cinema, using simple but technically challenging premises. These short movies benefit from their brevity, because the ideas are so small that they’d be tedious for viewers if stretched much further.
Some of the videos are little more than visual marvels. The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” famously uses only Lego blocks, while the band’s “The Hardest Button to Button” employs stop-motion-animation techniques with live people to stunning effect.
But his best video work is also narrative, fusing visual strategy with song to effectively tell a tale. Bjork’s “Bachelorette” is a representation of the degradation of a story as it gets told and re-told. It circles inwardly like a spiral, repeated within the context of its previous incarnation, increasingly coarse and on a smaller scale.
The White Stripes’ “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” visually combines the forward-moving present with a ghostly second exposure showing the past — a memory, although more tied to the place than a person. That clip seems a forerunner of Eternal Sunshine; both work within the intersection of past and present.
This film, though, represents a major leap forward, because it maintains its freshness for a much longer period of time.
I’ll leave you to discover the often-wondrous ways Gondry represents Joel’s journey through his memories — from romantic to silly to shameful — but they’re particularly impressive because he isn’t a director who fishes for respect with “Look at me!” showiness. His effects are subtle and mostly seamless, to the degree that many viewers probably won’t even notice them. That these surreal images don’t seem jarring is a testament to Gondry’s skills.
And that speaks to the real triumph of Eternal Sunshine: the way it’s grounded. Gondry’s use of a handheld camera and natural light gives the movie a rough, grimy texture that places it squarely in the real world. And although the film is vague with its two main characters — intentionally, I’d argue — it’s keenly observant of the various stages of a romantic relationship.
Furthermore, the film’s leisurely, straightforward early scenes relax the audience, and get it comfortable and open to the strangeness that follows. That’s a marked contrast from Spike Jonze’s work in Being John Malkovich, which was discomfiting from the outset, with its bad hair, half floors, and general detachment from anything remotely familiar and warm. Jonze, like Terry Gilliam, seems to make an effort to create anxiety in his viewers.
All this praise is not to say that Eternal Sunshine is perfect. A scene in a bookstore in which the type on book spines and section dividers gradually disappears was clearly and badly done with old-fashioned special effects; most of the books are obviously on the shelves pages-out instead of spine-out. And when Joel and Clementine hide in one of his childhood memories, the effect is grandly silly — Carrey is cleverly if awkwardly miniaturized, and the man behind Ace Ventura tries to mimic an infant’s fear and whining — but it goes on far too long, and the magic turns annoying.
And there are minor problems in the script. Subplots involving the workers at the memory-erasing office are underdeveloped and steal attention from the main plot.
But these extra story strands are essential (and rewarding) in the end, forcing Joel and Clementine to understand what happened before their memories were cleared of each other. A lesser work would have stopped the story with the promise of blank minds, new love, and a do-over. Eternal Sunshine gives Joel and Clementine the opportunity to start fresh twice. The first time, they both have clean slates, oblivious to the pain they caused each other, and they’re free to pursue romance blissfully ignorant. The second time, the pain is there in vivid, bilious detail.
This is a harder road, but it offers a more realistic hope for success. That’s because, finally, the title of the movie is ironic: There’s no eternal sunshine in a spotless mind, only the opportunity to repeat one’s mistakes over and over and over.