Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind manages to accomplish what most movie romances fail to do: tell a believable story. Despite its fundamental similarities to rom-com clichés, it is difficult (if not impossible) to name a more original romantic film.
At the beginning, Joel (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet), and through awkward interaction based on their seemingly imcompatible personalities, naturally develop an attraction toward each other. This is where the “almost cliché” situation starts. Clementine is a wild-child with brightly coloured hair, while Joel is an uber-introvert who seems more comfortable interacting with his journal. However, the story is not powered by the unlikeliness of their pairing, like a Yours, Mine, & Ours kind of situation. Rather, it follows a realistic progression through their relationship, with both members remaining entrenched in their own styles, to the point that they learn to despise the quirks and traits that they first found so adorable, eventually forcing their break-up.
Just as most movies would be content with a simple solution (like a reconciliation where Clementine settles down and Joel, I dunno, throws a rock at a pigeon or something), the characters also look for the easiest way out. In Eternal Sunshine, that just so happens to be memory erasure.
The first trick of the movie is that when we first see Joel and Clem, as they meet, it is not their first encounter. Instead, we know (because of the colour of Clem’s hair), that this is actually their second time around. Once they’ve met, the rest of the movie plays pretty much in reverse, through the perspective of Joel’s memory wipe. While the actual process of the procedure moves forward, we get glimpses into the highlight reel moments of their relationship, from break-up to their actual first meeting.
These memories stand out as the most impressive and beautiful portions of the film. The script, at these points, is stellar, as we not only have unconventional romantic dialogue, it is also broken up with moments of clarity where Joel realizes what is going on. As soon as he flashes back to the better parts of the relationship, he struggles to hold on to them. During times of particular lucidity, he even brings Clementine along, allowing her to make suggestions about how to stop the procedure. The erasures inside Joel’s mind are brilliantly demonstrated through the disappearance, or outright destruction, of the scenery and characters. As memories fade, so does the clarity of the picture, characters’ faces, and the sound.
Speaking of sound, one tiny beef I had with the movie was in its selection of music. It seems odd that a movie by Michel Gondry, director of countless music videos, would match up Joel’s initial breakdown, following the break-up (which occurs during the opening credits), with a song that doesn’t match his apparent turmoil. If this rift in levity may have been intended as some kind of hopeful juxtaposition, it was lost on me.
Onto the acting.
Kate Winslet is fantastic, vibrant, and adorable. Despite being cast in a role of “the crazy one” in the relationship, she resists any temptation to ham it up, realizing that this kind of personality type generally stems from insecurity and neurosis rather than a simple joie-de-vivre.
Until this movie, I didn’t know that Jim Carrey could whisper. All of his voice-over narration is mumbled in a kind of hushed intensity. At a few moments, the “larger-than-life” Jim Carrey slips through, although, to be fair it’s more of a Bruce Almighty over-the-top rather than an Ace Ventura absurdity. These instances also happened within the confines of Joel’s mind, so it’s almost excusable… almost. Otherwise, Carrey shows incredible restraint that doesn’t look much like restraint.
As a couple, they are a perfect representation of two people who have been together for a long time (possibly too long). Their fights are simply dripping with realism, where one person’s personal statement or wish escalates within seconds into a full-blown shouting match. It is nearly impossible to not empathize with both characters, on both sides of the fight, because anyone who has ever paired off with another human being has been in that fight.
While this main story develops, there is also a series of smaller narratives going on, dealing with the interactions of the staff of Lacuna, Inc., the medical office that tampers with the characters’ memories. Of the characters, only Elijah Wood’s and Tom Wilkinson’s had any interest for me. Elijah Wood quickly became despisable because of the turn his character takes, and Tom Wilkinson begins to share too much screen time with Kirsten Dunst, who I find difficult to tolerate in general. This film did nothing to improve my opinion. Regardless, none of these little stories end up really resolving satisfactorally, but they still occupy a healthy amount of time of the movie. I suppose they are there to make sure that we don’t get bored poking around in Joel’s mind. I, however, can’t imagine that ever happening, since the scenes of dissolving memories are some of the best I have seen in a long time.