Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

A wonderful, surreal, emotional meeting of minds.

It’s kind of amazing that the product of two such out-there brains – screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and director Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, most mind-blowing music videos of the ’90s) – is, above all else, so emotional. It’s no accident, of course: as cerebral as Kaufman’s ideas are, they feel like they begin from an emotional place; and Gondry’s inventive filmmaking techniques, born of childlike wonder, exploration and experimentation, are used in the service of expressing things we feel, often to embarrassing extremes.

On the technical side of things: two key elements conspiring to disorientate the viewer, to locate us inside the mind and memories of Joel (Jim Carrey), are the handheld photography and the use of practical effects. It’s a second combination of minds: director Gondry, cinematographer Ellen Kuras, editor Valdís Óskarsdóttir, as well as the sound design and production design. The resulting shots, which look random, unplanned and purely instinctive, are actually meticulously devised and choreographed: lens blurs, off-camera wardrobe changes, slurred line readings, scene transitions with elements carrying over to and from different locations and ideas, rear projections versus physical location changes… and of course, a Gondry staple: forced perspective.

On the story / character side: I wonder how different the film might have been had Kate Winslet‘s Clementine not been a manic pixie dreamgirl right from the start. It would make another kind of sense were she to be so erratic only within Joel’s memories: that his brain can’t contain the complexities and contradictions of her; that perhaps he’s chasing an idealised or reductive version of her, who isn’t really the person he broke up with, and which says more about him than it does her. It’s a notion the film barely touches on, and which might have added a whole other dimension to the story, the emotion and, finally, the resolution of the bittersweet premise: that two people, even knowing that one day they’ll come to hate and hurt eachother, still choose to be together anyway.

Further viewing

Speaking of a different film: according to Daniel Netzel (Film Radar), the deleted scenes paint a another picture of Joel, and these editing choices, particularly within the non-linear structure of Eternal Sunshine…, change characterisation and theme pretty dramatically:

Gondry’s brain is a wonderful place to visit – I cannot recommend the anthology The Works of Michel Gondry (2003) highly enough. In the meantime, here’s Gondry and Carrey talking about how planning, playfulness, and most of all a willingness to respond to unexpected moments, all figure in the process of this artist’s mind: