Monday, April 4, 2011

Revisit: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Romance of the century

Ice breaker
“Random thoughts for Valentine's day, 2004. Today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap”

Eternal Sunshine opens on a cynical note, and yet is far from a cynical film. Perhaps some of the conclusions you will draw from the film won’t exactly be optimistic – especially with a final looping image that suggests a constant, repetitive cycle. But it isn’t a cynical film. Cynicism is just one part of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s sublime deconstruction of a relationship. There are moments of sadness, moments of anger, moments of excitement and moments of pure joy. Mostly, though, just moments.

Eternal Sunshine was released in 2004, a year after Lost in Translation. The latter is a superb tale of an almost too brief relationship. Eternal Sunshine is about a much longer romance. Having seen them in relatively close proximity, I always put the two together, almost as companion pieces – defining fictional accounts of relationships and the people in them. They both had a profound effect on me as a sixteen / seventeen year old, and both remain amongst my favourite films. Eternal Sunshine is certainly an entirely more ambitious undertaking; not surprising from a writer who had just put out two of the most bizarre, unusual and fresh films of contemporary times.

It’s 20 minutes before the opening credits role. Before that, we get to witness the ‘first’ meetings of Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. We then suddenly jump to what appears to be a breakup, with a mysterious van following Joel. It’s initially a confusing jolt, and it’s the first significant time distortion in an inventive structure. We then jump around in space and time, examining the memories of Joel and Clementine’s relationship as they are deleted from the most recent to the oldest.

You could almost call the film a romantic comedy – the basic structure is there, albeit severely disjointed. There’s a meeting, a relationship, a complication and a reconciliation (of sorts), although not in that order. It’s also very funny. But it’s the central structure that makes the film work, and ultimately something far more memorable than the typical relationship drama. A sci-fi film that is purposefully cheap and down to earth (apparently Lacuna is like a dingy dentist’s office, in a delightfully playful touch), it’s a twist and plot device that allows Kaufman and Gondry to brutally dissect Joel and Clementine’s relationship. Full of moments of great truth, but also surreal imagery – bolstered by Gondry’s admirable insistence on using old fashioned, almost homemade special effects.

The successful mesh of the realistic and fantastical is never more evident than in my personal favourite scene: the climatic sequence in the beach house. Subverting the concept of the voiceover (like Kaufman’s fictional rendition of himself did in Adaptation after listening to a particularly vitriolic Robert McKee seminar), Joel heartbreakingly tells his memory of Clementine his real feelings. Meanwhile, the house – and, sadly, Joel’s final remaining memory of Clem – violently collapses around the pair. “I wish… I wish I stayed” Joel reflects as he leaves the house and Clem behind. It’s the beginning and end of a relationship beautifully combined and captured in one surreal, memorable moment – which pretty much defines the film as a whole. "You said 'So go' with such disdain" is an emotional sucker punch every time.

With such disdain...
Never one to pass up the opportunity to make the most out of a complex plot device, Kaufman even injects the subplots with interesting characters and themes. The ensemble cast help; the always reliable Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo, a suitably creepy Elijah Wood and a surprisingly effective Kirsten Dunst (playing up her innocent, youthful charm). The sequences involving the staff at Lacuna explore themes and ideas that don’t quite fit into Joel and Clementine’s story, and ensure the moral ambiguities and complexities of memory deletion are explored in great detail. They’re funny too, which helps.

Yet it is Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey’s performances that truly bring this film to life. From Winselt, it’s to be expected. Her portrayal of Clementine is a definitive kook, her bubbly actions a mask for deeper insecurities. Like her hair (I personally prefer tangerine), she’s hard to conclusively define. Carrey surprises more though. Winslet has shown herself to be a great actress on a number of occasions, but Carrey is sometimes harder to like. Here, he is fantastic playing a muttering, awkward character – which is pretty much the polar opposite of a typical Carrey character. He’d shown himself as a capable actor in The Truman Show – almost playing a parody of his comedic persona – but here he proves he has range. Winslet and Carrey both give Clem and Joel the depth the film relies on – two very different characters destined to be together (at least temporarily).

When Joel’s memories are finally deleted, the jigsaw pieces click into place. The ingenious structure is clear, and a relationship has played its course, only to begin again. This is a film that benefits from a second screening, with any confusion eliminated. Then you can appreciate the small touches and the little character moments – book titles disappearing on a shelf, the other occupants of Lacuna reception and their respective best-forgotten memories. It also ends ambiguously, the looping image of Joel and Clem running along a beach. For me, it’s a summary of the film to date – a happy moment, but one that will only happen between moments of pain and anger, again and again. Oddly, the Joker at the end of the Dark Knight pretty much sums it up best: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever”.

Yeah: so with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and their cast & crew created an almost definitive romantic comedy-drama. Other films have been similarly successful without any of the complications, but it is the wild ambition, humanity and inventiveness of this film that makes it work. Michel Gondry went on to make an equally imaginative, although slightly colder, film with The Science of Sleep. Charlie Kaufman, appropriately, went on to make a film about, well, everything, trying to capture an entire life with the insanely ambitious (and, for the most part, insanely successful) Synecdoche, New York. As good as their follow-ups have been (shame about Be Kind Rewind, though), it’s the warmth, characters and honesty that makes Eternal Sunshine so worth experiencing again and again. Personally, I’ve watched this film a silly number of times.

Although the film opens (and arguably closes) on cynical notes, it’s the happier scenes in this film that always hit hardest. Like Clem and Joel stumbling upon an elephant parade, as Kirsten Dunst recites the Alexander Pope (or is that Pope Alexander?) poem that gives the film the memorable title: “How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! / The world forgetting, by the world forgot / Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! / Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd”. So Joel reflecting on the shallowness of Valentine’s Day is an apt beginning; because, after all, this is a film that succeeds in capturing the realities of romance and relationships, and does so far more honestly than the greeting cards mentioned in the opening sentence of this extraordinary film.

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