Film Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. by Michel Gondry)


Last week, I started a poll to determine which film I should watch on Sunday and review on Monday.  Well, a lot of votes were cast and you, the readers of Through The Shattered Lens, proved to me once again that you are the greatest readers ever by picking one of my favorite films of all time.  From 2004, it’s the Charlie Kaufman-scripted, Michel Gondry-directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The plot plays out like something from a Philip K. Dick story.  I don’t want to reveal too much because I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen this film.  Eternal Sunshine is one of those rare films that carries with it the joy of discovery.  Depressed Joel (played by Jim Carrey) discovers that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has hired Lacuna Inc. to totally erase all memories of him from her mind.  Embittered, Joel decides to go through the same process.  The Lacuna technicians (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) comes to Joel’s apartment in the middle of the night and start the process of erasing his memories of Clementine.  However, as Joel is losing his past, he realizes that he doesn’t want to lose his time with Clementine.  Hence, Joel finds himself running through his rapidly fading memories of Clementine, trying to save at least some scrap of her memory from being erased.  Meanwhile, as Joel fights to save his identity, Ruffalo entertains himself by inviting his girlfriend (Kirsten Dunst) over to Joel’s apartment while Elijah Wood sneaks off so he can meet his new girlfriend — who is none other than Clementine.

The genius of this Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is that it takes an idea that seems very much “out there” and uses it to explore emotions that we’ve all felt.  Who doesn’t have someone that they wish they could wipe from their mind?  Me, I wish I could forget the exchange student from Keele University who broke up with me via e-mail.  I’d love to obliterate all memory of the frat boy who told me I was “white trash” or the former love of my life who managed to break my nose and my heart with just one movement of his hand.  We all have those people in our lives and what we forget is that by wiping out all the bad memories, we lose all the good ones as well.  Yes, Paul Walsh may have made me cry with his e-mail but, for two months before that, he held me while I cried and I can’t remember what I was crying about but I do remember feeling like I had never been held like that before.  And Dane may have hurt me terribly but now, every time I doubt myself, I simply remember that I’ve already survived the worst that could happen.  As for that frat boy who called me “white trash” — well, fuck him.  Yeah, there’s really no downside to erasing him from my mind.  In fact, I’ve already started because, to be honest, I can’t remember his name for the life of me.

Ironically enough considering the title, there’s very little sunshine to be found in this film.  Not only is every scene drenched in melancholy but, quite literally, director Michel Gondry appears to have exclusively filmed on overcast days.  For such a deliriously romantic film — one that celebrates the idea of enduring love — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is almost totally told in tones of gray and darkness.  In fact, as I watched the film last night, I was struck by the fact that often times, the only color in the film was provided by the Clementine’s ever-changing hair.  (Interestingly enough, Joel mentions Clementine’s hair as one of the things that he especially wants to forget about her.)  That the film works as both a dark comedy and a love story despite the grim images is a testament to the talents of both screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry.  (On the basis of the director’s later films — the latest being the enjoyable but shallow Green Hornet — I kind of suspect that Kaufman perhaps deserves a little bit more credit that Gondry.)

I think it’s also a testament to the talents of the film’s cast, all of whom gel into a perfect ensemble and allow the audience to believe in the film no matter how odd the film’s events may seem.  As I watched them last night, I found myself thinking about how much I truly love to watch good acting.  As long as a film has one or two good performance, it can be out-of-focus, choppily edited, and an hour or two too long.  By the same token, I find nothing more offensive than a million-dollar film full of expensive technology and boring performances. (Hello, Avatar.  How are you, Battle L.A?)  When I find a film, like Eternal Sunshine, that is actually both well-made and well-acted, I’m pretty much in love.

As the two lovers, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have a very surprising and very real chemistry together.  Watching them, you believed in their love and then you just as strongly believed in their hate.  This is one of those odd love stories where you not only believed that the two of them would actually get together but you also completely understood how and why Joel eventually drove Clementine away.  Carrey makes Joel’s depression believable without allowing it to get tedious or repetitive while Kate Winslet — well, where to begin?  Kate Winslet is probably one of the best actresses ever and this is one of her best performances.  I’ve always had a bit of a girlcrush on Winslet — there’s an honesty to her performances that few other actresses can match.  When she’s onscreen, the audience is with her.  She never puts up the whole “film star” barrier and, as a result, she inhabits her characters completely and brings them to life with both their strengths and their flaws.  And Clementine has got her share of flaws.  (I remember that when my mom saw this movie, she absolutely hated Clementine and the ever-changing color of her hair.)  Winslet doesn’t shy away from making Clementine human and, as a result, I think she elevated everyone else in the film as well.

As good as Carrey and Winslet are, the supporting roles are well-played as well and, as in all great movies, they give the impression of a world that existed before the movie started and one that will continue after the end credits.  I especially loved the performances of the Lacuna Staff, from Tom Wilkinson’s bland yet intimidating doctor to the creepy geekiness of Elijah Wood.  Mark Ruffalo and Kisten Dunst have a few great scenes where they’re partying the night away in Joel’s apartment while Joel’s memory is slowly erased.  The sight of a very hairy Ruffalo and a very giggly Dunst dancing in their matching panties pretty much epitomizes “geek love” for me.  I know that some people have complained that the scenes with Ruffalo and Dunst seemed out-of-place when compared to the ones between Carrey and Winslet but actually, I love the chemistry between Ruffalo and Dunst.  Even playing one of the nerdiest characters ever, Mark Ruffalo is still hot.  As for Dunst, she’s basically playing the same character that she always plays.  (As my friend Jeff recently put it, “Kirsten Dunst In Her Underwear” is as much of a film genre as drama, comedy, and science fiction.)  But I’ve always thought that she’s a likable enough actress (plus, by going red for Spiderman, she also indirectly helped this redhead’s social life) and she actually provides a nice (if surprising) moral center for Eternal Sunshine.

(Also, I’ll admit right now that if my boyfriend had a job that allowed him to hang out into a different stranger’s apartment every night, I’d probably sneak over and dance around in my underwear as well.)

It took me a while and a handful of viewings to really appreciate Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  When I first saw it, I thought it was a strange film.  I liked it but I never expected that it would become one of my favorite movies.  However, with each viewing, I find myself relating to and loving this film just a little bit more.  So, thank you to everyone who voted in my poll and who gave me a chance to fall in love with this film all over again.

Love ya. 🙂

7 responses to “Film Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. by Michel Gondry)

  1. You know, for the life of me, I can’t get into this film. Part of it is exactly why it resonates with so many people. It’s a film that makes one look back into their own lives and past relationships.

    For some this film seem to be very therapeutic and while for others, like myself, it opens up old wounds that need to remain closed.

    It’s not a bad film and if I look at it objectively it’s a great film and I judge it on those merits, but like yourself I try to at least feel any film I watch emotionally and this one just resonates way too much and clearly. Maybe in a few more years I’ll be able to appreciate it more. 🙂

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    • I dig this movie a lot, and it reveals something new with each viewing, much like successive re-reads of Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” seem to reveal a different novel each time (to a lesser extent Cronenberg’s film version does this, as well). Unfortunately, it proved to be something of a high point for both Gondry and Kaufmann, as Gondry’s subsequent film output has been much less ambitious (not that “Be Kind Rewind” didn’t have its moments), and Kaufmann’s “Synechdoche, New York” is a wildly uneven attempt at aping David Lynch that doesn’t come anywhere near Lynch’s finer moments. “Eternal Sunshine” is an emotionally brutal rollercoaster of a film that cuts deep and leaves the scars open. It’s not for everyone, but for those who appreciate laying bare the corners of the human soul that we don’t discuss in polite company, it’s not only a great film, but a damn necessary one.

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      • Synechdoche, New York is a film that I really, really desperately wanted to love. I mean, it was an attempt to do something unique, unexpected, and personal but, in the end, it just got too indulgent for its own good, I think. I think Kaufman is the type of talent who needs a Spike Jonze or a Michel Gondry to serve as a filter and to say, “That’s great, Charlie, but if you don’t scale it back a little, it’s just going to come across like your being bizarre in order to hide the fact that you haven’t really thought things through.” The Lynch comparison is an apt one because so many filmmakers tend to try to imitate him but what they forget is that as bizarre as Lynch’s films may be, everything that happens in them makes perfect sense in the context of the cinematic world that Lynch has created. Lynch defines the rules of his reality but once those rules have been defined, his films still follow those rules and, as long as you’re willing to make the effort, you can still follow the story and make some sort of emotional and intellectual investment in it. Kaufman forgot that, I think, with Synechode.

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  2. Well-fucking-stated! You honestly couldn’t give a damn about any of the characters in “Synechdoche” because they were nothing but ciphers for various points of view Kaufmann was trying to express. I agree he needs someoneto reign him in and also where he differs from Lynch is that Kaufmann is into tight, precisely-controlled scripting where as Lynch is all free-flowing subconscious expression, and Kaufmann just can’t pull off the imitation like he wants to. When something like those fires that pop up in every third or fourth scene in “Synechdoche” appear in a Lynch film, they’re expressions of — something, and we don’t even necessarily need to know what since it will mean somethign different for every viewer. When Kaufmann has a house on fire every few minutes, though, it’s supposed to mean something very precise and we’re supposed to agonize over what, and look for clues in the rest of the script. Kaufmann’s art is precise, controlled, specific, and made to engender the same emotional reactions in every viewer. Lynch’s films just flow — and mean something totally different to everyone who sees them. To me, that’s why his work feels more honest and more genuine, even if it’s usually more confusing. And he never spends time just jerking himself off in public like the final 1/3 of “Synechdoche” was.
    I don’t mean to be so down on Kaufmann, the only work of his I didn’t care for has been “Adaptation” and “Synechdoche,” but even his best stuff is very impressed with its own cleverness, and his ego does have a habit of either tripping him up entirely or, as you aptly point out, being held just closely enough in check by a skilled director so as not to interfere.

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