Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

There is a simple idea at the center of the Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: memory is the foundation for all of our relationships, with our world and with each other, an idea so obvious that it should hardly need elaboration. And yet this obviousness is exactly what this film is about. We take for granted the power of our own memories, rarely cherishing them, rarely delving as often as we should into the good ones, lingering instead in the sad memories that we allow to drown out those few magical memories that should shine out of the past like brilliant gems. Screenwriter Kaufman's has devised a perfect way of exploring the power of memory, through a mysterious company that allows people to selectively erase their memories, eliminating traumatic incidents or, especially, the memories of old relationships that have gone sour. This is what happens to Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who discovers that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has, after a particularly angry break-up, erased the memory of him from her mind completely. Seeking to make up with her, he goes to see her at work and finds that she doesn't even seem to recognize him, that she treats him like just another customer.

Shattered and hurt, Joel soon tracks this puzzling situation back to Lacuna, Inc., a small company that specializes in this mind-wipe procedure under the supervision of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Joel decides to undergo the procedure as well, completely erasing the memory of Clementine and their tormented relationship from his own mind just as she had with him. Perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the film is its convoluted structure, which shuffles this chronology around freely in order to amplify its emotional and thematic resonances. The film opens with the meeting of Clementine and Joel, on a beach at Montauk: they both seem out of sorts, aimless, wandering along the beach, drawn to each other as if by some mysterious force of magnetism. As it turns out, this opening — lasting twenty minutes before the credits roll — is not the couple's first meeting, but only their first meeting after having their memories erased. It is, actually, a variation of their true first meeting, which also took place on this beach, but at a party where neither of them fit in and were drawn to each other from their individual states of isolation.

The remainder of the film is largely an extended journey through Joel's mind as he goes through the memory-erasing procedure. The structure is, as a result, loose and free-associative, mimicking the twisty trains of thought that characterize memory: one memory leads to another leads to another, with subtle emotional linkages between incidents. This is what Dr. Mierzwiak's procedure seeks to erase, using a kind of emotional "map" derived from objects provided by the patient, objects that mark various memories of the person being erased. The film follows the map of Clementine and Joel's relationship, beginning mostly with unpleasant memories from the end of their relationship, perhaps because these thoughts are freshest in Joel's mind and also because emotional wounds tend to leave a deeper impression than sweeter memories. The trip through Joel's mind doesn't strictly follow a backwards chronological path, but its general trajectory is to move backward in time, starting with the fights and boredom and awkward moments and slowly beginning to weave in happier memories, romantic nights together, heartfelt sexual experiences, the little quirks and humor that made Joel fall in love with Clementine in the first place. The effect is that, although Clementine is in the process of being erased, Joel experiences it like falling in love with her all over again. By tracing the progress of their relationship in reverse, he can see why they drew apart, can see his own role in pushing her away, can see the seeds of their later troubles in earlier times. And he can also see everything that he loved about her, things he'd maybe forgotten consciously or at least started to take for granted, things that had moved him so deeply about her.

This is an extraordinarily clever and emotionally satisfying way to explore the intricacies of love and relationships. As Joel's memory is erased, he begins fighting back, resisting the process, desperately trying to hold onto the memories he treasures about Clementine. Before the process is over, he already regrets what he has done, and he begins — along with his mental doppelganger of Clementine — struggling fiercely against the procedure, trying to hide away his image of Clementine in childhood memories or deeply repressed corners of his mind, running with her through a landscape that crumbles around them, people and places disappearing or fading to white as the memories are extinguished. The film is a wonderful blend of Gondry and Kaufman's genius, with Gondry a seemingly perfect choice to visualize Kaufman's concepts.

There's a playful, visually creative sensibility that leavens the bittersweet tone of the material, having fun with the imagery from within Joel's unraveling mind. Faces are distorted and blanked out, warped into clay-like distorted lumps atop people's bodies. At one point, trying to turn a man around and discover the identity of Clementine's new boyfriend, Joel finds he's continually confronted only with the back of the man's head. In one of the best sequences, Joel tries to hide Clementine in a childhood memory of being in his mother's kitchen, and Joel appears as a shrunken figure hiding underneath the table, a child-sized adult dwarfed beneath Clementine, who stands in for one of his mother's friends, in a sexy 60s dress that bares her long legs, which look like great tree trunks from Joel's childish perspective. Gondry's tireless visual inventiveness provides the perfect toolbox for a film centered around the narrative gimmick of traveling through a man's mind. Another director would view a script like this as an opportunity for show-offy visual trickery, but Gondry's imagery, as wild and fanciful as it is, is never less than integral to the film's emotional undercurrents. This trip through the mind of a man in love is so evocative and moving because its visual conceits make concrete the feelings and ideas at the story's core.

Joel's reverse travel through his relationship with Clementine is especially heart-rending and moving because it is constantly set against the film's opening, which is a second take on the same romance. The film's emotions are complex and multi-layered; the opening is romantic and beautiful, but as Joel's memories reveal, this relationship has happened before, progressing from that sweet, charming starting point towards bitterness and fighting. Clementine and Joel's mutual memory loss gives them the chance to start over, to try again, but it also provides them the opportunity to make the same mistakes over again without even realizing it, to relive the past as though for the first time.

This idea is made apparent through the complicated subplots woven into Joel and Clementine's story, involving the various employees of the memory-wiping company as they perform their procedure on Joel. Although the film is undoubtedly focused on Joel and Clementine, there are surprisingly rich supporting performances from the technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), along with Stan's girlfriend Mary (Kirsten Dunst), the Lacuna secretary who doesn't realize that her girlish crush on Dr. Mierzwiak is the fresh beginning of a cycle she's already lived through at least once before, in a time now erased from her memory. Ultimately, this film is about the importance of memory and continuity, the importance of maintaining a connection to the past — of not forgetting what makes the people we love special to us, of not losing track of the mistakes we've made before so we might not make them anew.


Sam Juliano said...

Yes, this film is a masterpiece indeed,(my own #2 of it's year behind Von Trier's DOGVILLE, but only narrowly) and I've read and have written so much on it that it all seems so repetitious. But not this great review of course, which always examines film through an enrapturing prism.
The only thing I could possibly add to this magisterial treatment is proper mentioning of Jon Brion's piercing score, which accentuates the narrative you so painstakingly relate.

Lovely Easter Sunday offering, if I may say so!

Craig said...

I remember, after seeing this for the first time in the theater, feeling very....odd. Not in a bad way. I just wasn't quite sure what I had seen and knew I wanted to see it again. A lot of other viewers seemed to feel the same. Today, this film seems to keep getting better with age. A career high for Jim Carrey, and possibly Charlie Kaufman as well. (I just saw, and hated, "Synecdoche, New York," but that's another post.)

Jason Bellamy said...

Over at The House Next Door this weekend, Matt Zoller Seitz called The Darjeeling Limited a "waterworks" movie -- a movie that never fails to produce a good cry.

Eternal Sunshine doesn't bring me to tears every time I see it, but close to it. It's emotionally devastating, in ways both heart-warming and sad.

I agree with your assessment, but as much as it's about memory, Eternal Sunshine is a film about fate. Joel and Clementine are drawn to one another beyond their control, which means that, yes, they are likely to make the same mistakes the second time as the first time.

Or maybe not. There's always hope.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Jason, I'm especially with you. I don't think I've ever actually cried at a movie, but there are a few films that have gotten me close, and this is definitely one of them. Its emotions are just so rich and complicated. You're also right that this is about fate as much as memory: Joel and Clementine are drawn together again almost as soon as they forget about each other, as though they're just meant to be together despite all the pain associated with their relationship. The hope in the ending of the film is located in the fact that they've now learned about what came before, so there's some hope that they'll learn from the mistakes they made last time around.

Then again, the film's original script contained additional framing sequences in which a much older Clementine goes for the memory-wiping procedure for the nth time, suggesting that they've repeated this cycle of love, anger and forgetting throughout their lives. That would've been a much bleaker and sadder ending; I'm glad that was cut to leave the ending much more ambiguous.

Tim said...

This is the one film that can bring a tear to my eye no matter how many times I've seen it, and I've seen it plenty. Outstanding masterwork of a film in all areas - not mentioned in your great review is the integral contributions of cinematographer Ellen Kuras, whose handheld photography in this film has spawned a thousand imitators since and score composer Jon Brion (this generation's Nino Rota), whose simple melodies populate the film with touches that further penetrate the viewer's own subconscious and bring up personal emotions in a way I have yet to experience in any other film, before or after.

Gondry and Kaufman are the perfect foils for each other - Kaufman's writing takes the naive nature of Gondry's direction into more sincere territory and Gondry's direction takes the esoteric, conceptualized edge off of Kaufman's writing and makes it pallettable. This is by far the best works of both of them - since they've both done nothing but indulge in their own ambitions unchecked to far more dilluted results.

This is an incredible film, and, IMO, could easily be argued as one of the most important and influential films of this decade, if not a candidate for the top part of that list.