I write these reviews because I have a critical nature. I find at least one flaw, one thing I would have liked to see differently, in just about every movie I see. It’s pretty rare that I see any movie, even a classic that I have seen a dozen times before and love, and think “that was perfect” … but it is possible. It happened when I watched Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Although this is one of the most unconventional films of the last 10 years, its premise sounds like it could be the next big-studio romantic comedy – indeed, saying “it’s a comedy about memory” might remind one of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore vehicle 50 First Dates, with which it competed at the box office. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have soured on their relationship, so Clementine goes to a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) who offers the opportunity to erase all memories of a relationship from someone’s mind. Angered, Joel subjects himself to the procedure as well. The movie unwinds their relationship in Joel’s head, as he’s forgetting it, while cutting to the technicians carrying out the procedure (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst).
The brilliance of this film starts with the screenplay from Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). He starts with the premise that the memory-erasing technology could exist, and then extends it to its natural conclusion with respect to every character. Wood and Dunst have arcs as fully fleshed-out as Carrey and Winslet, even though they’re on screen a fraction of the time. Just a single shot of a woman next to Carrey in the waiting room, carrying an empty dog’s leash, speaks volumes about what people use this procedure to do.
An amazing thing that I noticed about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is this: many, many of my favorite movies after its release had small flaws, and Gondry gets all of those flawed issues right. For example, I liked Inception a lot, but I didn’t like that its dream sequences weren’t quite dreamlike enough; they seemed a little too much like movies with slightly different rules. Eternal Sunshine‘s memory sequences are perfectly dreamlike, surreal while possessing a strange internal logic. I was disappointed how Blue Valentine backed away from explaining how its central relationship ended up on the rocks; the climax of Eternal Sunshine approaches that very issue head-on.
The film also undermines one of the primary tropes of the modern romantic comedy, which Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club first labeled “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” The idea is that a spate of recent movies (Rabin was writing about Elizabethtown and also mentions Garden State as an example) feature a bored, glum young man who is saved from himself by a hyper-optimistic young woman. As Eternal Sunshine explicitly points out, if a real-life woman acted like a lot of these characters, she would be considered “flighty” at best and “deeply messed up” at worst. Both the screenplay and Winslet’s performance show how entering into a relationship with such a woman, expecting to be “saved” while not acknowledging that she has her own desires too, will end in disaster.
But wait, I’m not done talking about Winslet’s performance yet. First, her American accent is flawless, but that’s a thing which a lot of actors can manage. More impressive is how she knows exactly what Clementine wants in every scene. It’s incredibly complicated, because in some scenes she’s just playing the real-world Clementine, in some she’s playing the idealized version of Clementine as Joel would like to remember her, and in some she’s playing Clementine as shaded by the emotion of the memory that Joel is re-living. She has a perfect grasp of when she needs to be “real” and when she doesn’t, the ways that Clementine is messed up and the ways that she isn’t. Winslet received her third Academy Award nomination for the film (Hilary Swank won for Million Dollar Baby, a film which I like, but which is nowhere near as good as this one).
The acting can sometimes get lost in the fact that you are not likely to have ever seen a film that looks quite like this one. Gondry got his start in music videos, and he became famous for using practical effects and camera tricks to produce visuals that looked like they came straight out of a computer (such as Bjork’s “Human Behaviour” and The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button“). That same sensibility applies here, where Gondry creates a vivid memory just by taking the real world and applying a gentle surrealist touch, often with practical effects. An impressive pair of scenes from Joel’s childhood made a particular impression. There are some digital effects in Eternal Sunshine, but probably not as many as you think.
It’s all in the service of one basic theme: the importance of memory to the way that we think. A scene which had a particularly powerful effect on me was one in which Joel replays a memory of being bullied as a child. Since he appears in the memory as grown-up Jim Carrey, he decides to assert himself against the bully, but the bully takes him down just as he would have as a kid. It’s played for laughs, but I think every dramatic note in the movie is hit in that scene as well. We have our memories, and we shade them with the kind of person we wish we had been or the sort of things that we wish we had done, and that’s fine. But, we can’t get away from what actually happened, either, no matter how much we wish we could do it over or forget it.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did not perform well at the box office, despite universally rave reviews, mainly due to factors beyond any of the filmmakers’ control. It was opposite the Dawn of the Dead remake on its opening weekend, and its entire run coincided with the Passion of the Christ phenomenon. It suffered from being “Jim Carrey’s next drama” after the bomb The Majestic, and getting thrown in with that film by association. Its experience in theaters is enough to make you lose hope in the movie-going public, but it had and continues to have great success on DVD. We can hope that in the long run it will be remembered as the perfect art that it is; that’s almost as good, which is the movie’s whole point.
Reviewed by Mark Young