Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind melds fantasy, memories and the subconscious for a completely original take on the love story
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet
Directed by Michel Gondry
Released by Focus Features
It’s ironic that there’s little sunshine in a film with the title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Set mostly in New York during February, there’s a grey winter cloud that hangs over a film exploring the two year relationship between extroverted book clerk Clementine (Kate Winslet) and socially inept artist Joel (Jim Carrey). Through non-linear storytelling we learn couple’s history from meeting to break up and along the way get to know the company contracted to eventually erase the relationship from their memories.
Yep, you heard right. In the world of this film, if there’s a memory that’s too painful for you to carry along in your subconscious, you can simply erase it thanks to the folks at Lacuna Inc. After their break-up, Clementine and Joel both contract Lacuna Inc to pay them a visit. Clementine does it first impulsively as a way to quickly get over Joel and he quickly follows suit as an act of vengeance.
A major flaw in the film is that it never explores the real world implications of the procedure: how could there be repeat customers if you’re getting your memory erased? If you learned someone got the procedure, couldn’t you simply show them adequate proof that you knew each other until they understand what happened?
But if you’re able to accept the procedure for its symbolic implications on human relationships, then you’ll be completely charmed with the film which is written by Charlie Kaufman, a man known for his unconventional stories such as 1999’s Being John Malkovich and 2002’s Adaptation. Since the script requires such a suspension of disbelief, the film simply wouldn’t work if the performances weren’t strong.
Carrey proves again after The Truman Show (1998) that this natural comedian is completely capable of delivering dramatic performances. Although it must be said that in certain scenes where Joel and Clementine are hanging out together, it does feel like Carrey is desperate to break free of Joel’s shy and sombre exterior and be silly.
The silly part in this film is instead ironically given to Kate Winslet, who is best known for her serious period films. Winslet knows to gives Clementine the necessary qualities of charm and humanity so that the character doesn’t come across simply as a caricature.
Most of the film is played out as Joel’s stream of consciousness while the memory erasing procedure is performed on him one night. Basically how it works is while in a deep sleep, Joel is forced to relive all his memories of Clementine and afterwards the Lacuna technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) delete the memory from his subconscious.
With the film jumping back and forth in time in Joel’s mind, periods are loosely marked by the colors green, red, orange and blue – aka Clementine’s ever changing hair color. The more that Joel relives his memories with Clementine, the more he realizes that despite the pain that occurred near the end he treasures the time he had with her.
What’s so interesting about having memories played out in a dream state is that Joel and Clementine can both play out the memory and comment on it at the same time, a sort of twisted version of Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977). The scene where Joel and Clementine comment on they first time they meet, for instance, is especially sweet.
I would have been happy if the whole film had simply focused on Joel and Clementine, but included in the already confusing story is a sub-plot involving the Lacuna technicians and their own messed up romantic lives. Every single actor in the Lacuna universe is a strong performer but Patrick has got to be one of the most annoying characters ever put on screen.
The fact that Wood plays Patrick with an over the top creepiness doesn’t help either. Insecure and without any morals Patrick sweeps in on Clementine days after she’s erased Joel from her mind. To make things worse, in his dream state Joel picks up on bits and pieces of Patrick’s conversation with Stan while he boasts how he stole Clementine away.
Are Joel and Clementine meant for each other? The romantics might think that when Joel and Clementine meet again at the end of the film, it’s fate brining them back together, but couldn’t it also be that Kaufman is asking the audience if it’s healthier for people who have broken up to learn to move on instead of trying to force themselves into forgetting their exes ever existed? It’s a complicated questions that doesn’t have an easy answer and just like this film, it lingers in your memory long after the credits stop rolling.