As I sit down to write this essay, I realize that I haven’t written a thing in nearly 2 months. It is due to both a combination of not really being enthused about any films I’ve seen in the last couple months and also from the sheer burden of keeping up with life in all its vast responsibilities and possibilities. On any given day, it’s amazing how many choices we can make and how many different directions we can go in. It’s a wonder that most of us end up each night in roughly the same place as the night before, probably sleeping in the same bed, under the same roof. When you stop and think of the complexities of life, it’s amazing how our brains have a vast ability to keep us, for the most part, grounded. Some of us are faced with more challenges than others. Some of us thrive on change and pressure more than others. But, for the most part, there are routines that each of us follow, day in and day out. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is many things, but at it's core, it somehow captures a certain quality about how our brains work, and the choices we make (both consciously and unconsciously), while also remarkably capturing a vast humanist element at the same time. This coupling of a structural analysis and a humanistic decomposition of our mind’s process yields one of cinema’s most memorable attempts at capturing our existence. It’s also one of the most beautiful and poignant attempts to show the duality of love relationships….the beauty and tragedy of a life spent trying to preserve ourselves yet also at times risking everything for love and acceptance.
Gondry’s masterful film concerns the current mindstate of Joel, played with a relaxed and almost morose quality by Jim Carrey. At the beginning of the film, we see what looks like the beginning of a relationship between he and a woman named Clementine (Kate Winslet) who happen to meet in Montauk, NY on a day when Joel has decided to ditch work on a random whim…..or maybe not so random. This initial sequence sets up a poignancy after we realize later that this isn’t the first time Joel and Clementine have met. It only FEELS like it to them. In the weeks and months prior, they were both in a relationship together that was filled with lots of beautiful moments and many ugly moments. It got to a point where both of them determined they wanted to erase each other from their memories. Thus, they each hired a firm called Lacuna to conduct such a procedure. Clementine has the erasing done first. When Joel learns of it, he decides to join her in the process. This premise sets up the beautiful second half whereby the Lacuna crew (played by Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and Kirsten Dunst), attempt to erase each memory of the relationship from Joel’s mind. Meanwhile in Joel’s subconscious, non-waking state, he attempts to preserve and salvage some memory of Clementine as he realizes it would be far better to retain some of the good memories along with the bad memories, rather than remove all memory of their relationship altogether.
The recently deceased Alain Resnais surely must have seen commonalities between his works and Gondry’s film. Being that the screenplay was written by Charlie Kaufman, the film's look and feel is also as much his as Gondry’s, with Kaufman’s unique perspectives of reality on display, which are in turn leveraging processes and techniques that Resnais built back in the 1950’s and 60’s. Resnais was able to blend past and present into a commonality. He didn’t allow for a separation of past and present. As he once stated, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” It could be argued that Resnais’s singular, distilled essence was to emphasize this point. Gondry and Kaufman build upon this foundation, essentially turning the present and past into a common experience, inseparable from each other, with present and past intermingling to such a degree that there is no distinction. So often during the film, we witness Jim Carrey’s current perspective embedded in a past memory, such that he and Clementine exist in two states at the same time, or more simply put.....just a single state of being. In what might be the best sequence in the film, Joel attempts to find a place in his mind where he can hide the memory of Clementine so far deep in his brain that the Lacuna company can’t find it. He places himself and Clementine into a memory when he was 4 years old, hiding under the kitchen table and witnessing the interaction of Clementine and his mother, with Clementine taking the place of his mom’s friend. Clementine and Joel are privy to the fact that they are attempting to hide from Lacuna at the present time, while concurrently existing in an experience from 30 years prior. Thus, the past and present become one experience for them.
What makes the film so desperately romantic, is in fact the idea of a relationship which has gone off track and the duality of wanting to remember and wanting to forget at the same time. For Joel, what starts out as a desire to forget everything, ends up as a fight to preserve at least some of the good along with the bad. We can all recall relationships that either never got off the ground or crashed and burned over time. This film asks, "would we rather maintain the memories, both the good with the bad, or remove them entirely?" The poignancy of this question is posed in such a way that the film emphasizes the sensitive beauty and tragedy of our memories. Memories can stir such different reactions depending on what they are. But to erase them is a scary proposition, not just because of the loss of recollection, but for the loss of experience and learning. What happens at the end of the film, as Joel and Clementine realize the mistakes they made in the past, they learn to overlook the pursuit of the safe approach and choose the messiness of existence over sanitized love. They choose passion over perfection. This is such a relatable and poignant conclusion, it can’t help but conjure a hopeful, humanistic conveyance. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet provide a grounded presence throughout the film with their beautiful and varied performances. Winslet in particular conveys alternate approaches, particularly as she exists post memory loss, ending up in a temporary relationship with the Elijah Wood character, who is attempting to duplicate Joel’s courtship of Clementine. She has this way of appearing lost in a certain spatial plane that is neither here nor there. Gondry’s willingness to lose the audience for periods of time is brazen in his confidence in that he knows he will recover us later as things come together. I must admit it was 10 years between viewings and it’s amazing how beautifully the film comes together upon repeated viewing. Although there is already a dated, low-tech vibe to the film (no cell phones, primitive computer systems), the film hardly suffers from them, with the warmth of human contact taking center stage. Charlie Kaufman’s script is as loose and free as it is deliciously pragmatic. Once you watch the film, it’s amazing how intricately designed it is. No wonder he won the best Screenplay Oscar that year. What stands out for me, are the beautiful sequences as Joel and Clementine race to hide in Joel’s mind, attempting to preserve small semblances of their love and experience together, learning from these experiences on how to be better people and building a greater love and appreciation for each other. It is one of cinema’s most truly lovely expressions of romantic love.