Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Michel Gondry)
Random thoughts from the day I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the first time in many years and afterward realized it had been almost exactly a decade since I saw it in the theater, which is a weird feeling: despite so much of it passing into indie culture and my own generation’s understanding of romance as depicted in film, its wintry luminescence still delights. It is of course the story of a couple who’ve broken up bitterly and have each paid — out of spite, or impulse, or something — to have their memories of the relationship erased by a company that makes its dime doing just that. They not only wipe your brain of the whole endeavor but clean your apartment of any evidence that might trigger a memory. As the hapless introvert in a relationship with a spirited overcommunicator, Joel (an exquisitely understated Jim Carrey) watches paralyzed as the parts of his mind impacted by Kate Winslet’s Clementine (exquisitely overstated) are distorted and destroyed, and his memories of those times fade from view in real-time as we watch. It’s quite a concept, and harrowing, and sometimes almost feels like too personal a thing for us to be allowed to see.
It is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s most directly emotional work up to this point, and director Michel Gondry — heretofore best known for mindbending music videos like the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be” and Bjork’s “Human Behaviour” — proves a keenly observant match for his neuroses. Gondry has a field day, with in-camera special effects and a level of cinematic exuberance he’d explore in even less tied-down fashion in The Science of Sleep two years hence. The paradox of Eternal Sunshine is that the two touchstone Kaufman scripts filmed before this one, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, sound more frivolous and gimmicky in theory but in fact delve into deeper, more probing truths about the emotional inner lives of people (especially creative people). Conversely, Eternal Sunshine is not quite the punch to the gut that it was the first time, at least not from start to finish. We’re all a lot older, though there’s more to it than that.
When Eternal Sunshine was released and my then-girlfriend and I saw it and were enchanted by it, I had never been through a breakup. Funny how getting older changes how you see a film like this so much. The scenes establishing Joel and Clementine’s relationship — in dream logic fashion, with one memory simply giving way to another non-chronologically — feel real because they, as individuals and a couple, seem real. It works that way not because they’re trying to embody some universal ideal of what love and relationships are like (see: Her) but because they are singular, unique people, like all of us — though Clementine carries some unfortunate MPDG “free-spirit” texturing, maybe that makes sense in the context of do-gooder Joel’s perception of her. The memories aren’t vague, they’re specific — and from that comes their recognizable emotional truth. These are sometimes hard truths, especially those from a couple that (crucially to the narrative) is probably destined to be happy for a little while and then drift apart. The film is not so open-ended that you can slot yourself in, but you can relate intensely to the longing, the affection, the excitement, the anger, the heartbreak, and I find that much more true now. Not to make this about me but I even went through a breakup that included a conversation about how neither of us would be able to watch this movie for a long time.
Coincidentally, this film expresses one of the life lessons of that experience for me: permanence and stability are something, but they aren’t everything. Watching this recently, as soon as Joel famously said “Enjoy it,” I was in for a half-hour of teary-eyed emotional terrorism. The Joel-Clementine stuff is transcendent, and just about as vivid as screen romance has ever been. The actors are perfect. Winslet needs no justification, but Carrey fully rewards us for trusting in him when he gives that speech about why he left the night they first met. In not just the context of breakups I’ve been through where no one was wrong but everyone could be hurtful, but also in my current and very happy relationship where I still have regrets and already sepia-toned nostalgia for beautiful moments I never want to lose, this stuff hits home — almost too closely, like the key insights in all of Kaufman’s scripts. But also, a kind shout to lost love: aren’t we all glad we have those memories still? And the finale, the decision to take part in self-immolation voluntarily despite the hard evidence that it won’t “work out,” so to speak, is moving and says a great deal about how important it is to live in moments over a conceptually indefinite permanence. Which isn’t to say that romantic love is all intensity without warmth; one of the ways Sunshine probably speaks more loudly to younger viewers is that most of us in our early twenties don’t have the life experience to appreciate the more practical and mundane nuances of coupledom, something all but absent from this film. That’s why it’s an excellent portrait of young people in love, not love itself. I once thought it was an overly pessimistic glance at long-term relationships, but now realize that’s not really what Kaufman and Gondry are even addressing. The relationships that had a shelf life but are still tinged with nostalgia in the years to follow? That’s this movie, with welcome shades and wisps of something more.
But! There’s a big “but” in this movie, and even though its best moments are the best material I feel Kaufman wrote until his stunning Synecdoche, New York, I consider it weaker than the two movies he wrote for Spike Jonze. The creative restlessness and joy of the scenes with Winslet and Carrey give Kaufman and Michel Gondry so much to work with… and then every time we switch to the stoned soap operatics of the Lacuna staff — a convoluted psychodrama starring Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo which overly rationalizes and complicates everything that we actually care about — the film stops dead in its tracks. Elijah Wood as a conniving Nice Guy is amusing and may be the sole justifiable element here; the subplot otherwise is a very, very Hollywood stunting of a beautiful story. Only an American film would feel such a need to justify, in such a boring sci-fi-short-story way, its bold and wondrous train of thought about wanting to forget your grief and yet not wanting to let go of it, something I have needed no Lacuna to struggle with, nor have you.
Of course, take that stuff away and it becomes an art film — but it practically is anyway. It’s just frustrating that Gondry and his backers were ready to take people so far and then muck everything up with such a bunch of lazy plottiness. This may be down to Kaufman more than Gondry, who seems to be pushing back against some self-conscious weirdness in the script to bring him to the indescribably romantic place where he makes so much raw and startling magic happen, cars falling from the sky and faceless people slowly or quickly fading. I can’t remember many problems I have with any film that I wish I could change more than this. You could still retain the skeleton of the story and keep that crucial final moment: when the doomed lovers realize that it’s all worth it. What a brave, scary insight — it makes you want to run out and embrace the world (soundtracked by Jon Brion, please, this movie’s secret weapon). It makes you want to say hello to someone you know or don’t know. Regardless of everything, it’s one gorgeous, heartwrenching movie.