No. 12: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004)

“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” ~~Clementine Kruczynski

If it’s true that the course of love doesn’t run smooth, it’s also true that our memories of that trip don’t follow a timeline. In the beginning, there are the obvious landmarks: the first meeting, a tentative investigation; the first conversation; the first kiss. But once affection sours, time goes full Cuisinart on those recollections, scrambling them so hopelessly we couldn’t reorganize them if we tried.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) experience this reality not once but again and again in Michel Gondry’s tender and achingly beautiful “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film with a script that mimics the curious effects of time upon our memories of lost love. Here, the end and the beginning bleed together, and they also cloud the way we see everything in the middle because the boundary lines are loose and fuzzy. Charlie Kaufman, who penned the knotty script, seems intent on drawing us in by providing all the answers and letting us ferret out the equation.

What’s so wonderfully original and mesmerizing about “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” is that Joel and Clementine are in the exact same position we are. Both find themselves in an odd situation with the facts of the present, yet they have no idea how they got there. And it takes quite some time before we figure out how they did, either. Since their story can’t quite be told in a linear fashion, let’s start somewhere in the muddy middle: On an uncharacteristic whim, timid loner Joel skips work and hops a train to Montauk. The ride back leads him to meet Clementine, a chatty free spirit with unruly blue hair (“I apply my personality in a paste,” she offers brightly) who’s sure she’s met Joel before. There’s an unexpected connection that threatens to become more, and that’s when everything goes pear-shaped: Seems Joel and Clem not only know each other, they used to be lovers. The reason neither remembers this has to do with Lacuna, Inc., an odd little business run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) that specializes in erasing painful memories.

Additional stories funnel into “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” involving Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (the invaluable Mark Ruffalo), Lacuna’s memory-vanquishing technicians, and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), Mierzwiak’s receptionist. Their lives intersect with Joel’s because they’re charged with erasing Clementine from his mind, and all three are so wrapped up in their own strange realities that they don’t realize Joel wants to stop the procedure right in the middle of it. Not that his protests matter, really; he’s hidden too far in his own mind to be heard. This makes his anguish all the more wrenching, for who hasn’t let heartbreak lead to a bad choice screaming to be taken back?

There are, perhaps, no appropriate words to describe what Carrey and Winslet bring to this bittersweet examination of love. The kooky plot requires them to anchor their characters in reality, make them human enough for us to suffer their hurts and feel their joy. Carrey quiets himself enormously to play Joel, a lonely man who guards his heart closely. Winslet’s more open but no less touching as Clementine, a woman whose flightiness covers a deep core of insecurity and self-awareness. Together, with their stirring chemistry, they make Joel and Clementine’s love story one of the greatest ever told. 

Worry not, though, that “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is some kind of repackaged epic romance with a comedic twist. Elements of the universal exist, certainly, but with Gondry behind the camera this is love story that feels almost shockingly intimate. We catch glimpses of under-the-cover confessions, lazy afternoon strolls, early dinners uncomfortable in their cold silence — the things no one ever sees. All the shots are so gorgeously lensed, so precisely placed and edited, that what we have is a story told in scattered Polaroids. And sometimes it’s the snapshots, creased and smudged with fingerprints, we keep closest to our hearts.

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19 Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to put on my top ten of the decade list for a few months, and I spent most of that time wondering if I would represent Kaufman with this or his astonishing, towering Synecdoche, NY. I think I’ll end up just putting both on because the man is an outright genius.

    I reviewed this myself a while back and I noted that this is the only romantic comedy I can think of where editing is one of the filmmaking aspects in the foreground: the way that it leaps in and out of reality, how it juxtaposes the adult Joel with whatever memory he’s experiencing at the moment (how great is it that Carrey found the perfect outlet for his usually annoying physicality, one that turns that ass-talking Ace Ventura into something truly artistic?).

    I also love how Kaufman and Gondry are willing to end where they started, leaving the dark suggestion that this couple are simply going to repeat everything that just happened. Or maybe they’ll get it right this time. The way we’re left without a clue in either direction is so ballsy. Excellent review; now I’ve got to go watch this again (as if it’s a chore).

    • So you caught that, did you, the very subtle (or dark, as you call it) suggestion that Joel and Clementine aren’t so much meant to be together as they are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again? Very nice. I tend to hope for better than that, but I like that Gondry and Kaufman left it open for interpretation. It’s not a happy ending; it’s not a sad ending; it’s just an ending.

      My favorite interaction in the whole film:

      Joel: “I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you.”
      Clementine: “But you will! But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”
      Joel: “Okay.”
      Clementine: “Okay.”

      Reduces me to a puddle. Every. Damn. Time.

  2. Great review, and as you know I love this movie. Sadly, I’ve only seen it once and I find that lately it’s specifics are fading from my memory. But, until I get around to seeing it again the power and emotion remains, I don’t think any amount of time in-between viewings can ever cause those elements to fade.

    • You have to see “Eternal Sunshine” several times — maybe even an amount in the double digits — I think before it really gets its hooks in you. Every time I watch it I find something else to love.

  3. That’s the way for a lot of us isn’t it? You get together with someone and go through times where you wonder aloud “Why am I with this person?”…only to discover that for better or worse, they are who you’re supposed to be with…or doomed in the case of Clem and Joel.

    Loved reading this piece, especially since the movie lends itself so well to conversation with how kooky it is. Count me as a big fan of it as well, and indeed of Winslet and Carrey’s performances.

    The only thing that leaves me a little saddened, is that in the 5+ years since this film was released, we haven’t seen Carrey come anywhere close to as good as he was in this movie.

    Oh, and count me as another person who will be marking this one down as one of the best of the decade :)

    • I consider this to be Jim Carrey’s most inspired film besides “Ace Ventura.” He had this and “Man on the Moon” in him, so I keep hoping he has more to offer than crud like “Yes Man.”

  4. One of those timeless flicks that will never get old. Good review

  5. This movie was a milestone in my movie-going experience. It completely turned what I thought of film and the powers of the cinema completely upside down. Until then I was a casual viewer gobbling up everything I saw and basically agreeing that what I had seen was either ok or great. This movie showed me that there are “great” movies and then there are great movies. Charlie Kaufman is some sort of genius and I envy him with every waking breath.

  6. been waiting to see what you’d write about this one, seeing as how it’d probably be #1 on my list. i’d say you did it justice. nice job.

    my favorite exchange has always been:

    “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.”
    “I know.”
    “What do we do?”
    “…Enjoy it.”

    • Also a good choice. But the end just wrecks me every time. So hopeful and so sad all in the same breath.

  7. i quite liked Yes Man

    • It was better than it had a right to be, but that was mainly because Carrey and Deschanel had good chemistry and Rhys Darby was HYSTERICAL as Norman the nerdy boss.

  8. eternal sunshine makes me cry. it really is that simple. but then so did Operation Dumbo Drop

    • Seeing how far Danny Glover’s star had fallen will make anyone cry.

      I kid, I kid.

      But yes, this is an amazing movie – though I think the Truman Show remains Carrey’s best peformance, but it’s really just a matter of person preference – he’s practically flawless in both.

  9. I also note this as one of the best of the decade and also one of my favorites of all time. As abstract as the films structure is, the realism of the relationship of Clem and Joel is staggering. I literally burn inside as I realize each time how well they are meant for each, and how torturous the realism of love and relationships can be. There isn’t a better bittersweet romance.

    • Interesting point you make about Joel and Clem belonging together — I’ve heard others argue that the movie shows us how we make the same mistakes in love not once but again and again. Gives the ending a totally different feel, no?

      Still, I choose to err on the side of optimism with “Eternal Sunshine.” Like you, I love how the film smashes all our moony, Hollywood-coated expectations about love and shows the reality — the little tensions and arguments, the quiet, private moments and how they add up to make every relationships universal and so very small at the same time.

  10. [...] E is for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” [...]

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