May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
July 9, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at Image Facts.)
It is a scientific fact, at least according to a recent issue of Reader’s Digest, that the part of your brain that makes decisions is much faster than the part of your brain that creates emotions. A human being can encounter a problem and make a decision to solve it long before the same human being begins to “feel” a certain way about the situation itself. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that occurs in this disorienting lag time. One in which a character’s feelings about a set of circumstances persists painfully beyond their decision to erase them.
Eternal Sunshine tackles a pedestrian storyline, but shocks us by ending up somewhere this street has never taken us before. It is the typical story about a breakup, the end of a bad relationship in which one person (Joel) cares much more deeply about it than the other (Clementine). But is an atypical look at this story, a retelling of Dickensian proportions (Philip K., not Charles). For in this fabled Boston it is possible to simply go to Dr. Mierzwiak and have him erase the memories of such an unfortunate and painful breakup. No harm, no foul, no memories.
That is, until Joel discovers that lag time between decision and feeling, and in the midst of the operation discovers that he really doesn’t want to go through with it.
The great Latin American epic Amores Perros closed with the words: “We are also what we have lost.” This could be the tagline for the agency Joel rushes to get a fresh start after discovering that his ex-girlfriend has done the same. The film opens on a whim. Joel dashes out of the train that would take him to work and hops onto one headed out towards the beach at Montauk. Down the length of this cold shore he sees someone else walking, a young woman isolated in technicolor against the white surf. During the train ride back, they strike up a conversation that sparks a relationship that sparks a romance that starts to seem all-too-familiar.
Skipping gleefully from here to the past, and then from island to island in the ocean of Joel’s memories, the story of Joel’s odd emotional torment begins to unravel itself to us. Packed with back story, intrigue, subplots, and red herrings, Eternal Sunshine flirts so ingenuously with its narrative arc that Joel’s memories and realities begin to take on the same visual pallor. Most of the story occurs with Joel on his bed in his apartment as three semi-interested assistants to the memory erasure specialist oversee the process of having Clementine banished from his brain. Somewhere during this process, as Joel is swept over his history with Clementine scene by scene, he discovers that he doesn’t want her to be completely taken from him even if it will be painful for him to hold on to these memories when he wakes up.
This sends Joel, and an oddly helpful dreamscape Clementine, on the hunt for some place to hide just one memory of her. It is here that Gondry begins to really flex his directorial muscle. Apparently, he has an aversion to laying effects over his film in post-production, and most of what you see in the film actually occurs in front of the camera. Which is hard to believe, seeing as this segment of the film spent in Joel’s memory is probably the first time a director has successfully tackled the visual mechanics of memory. Scenes disappear as quickly as Joel can turn his head around, faces vanish, shadows uncoil themselves across aching suggestions of the past, and we stumble with Joel over thresholds of time that take us from adulthood to childhood in less than a blink.
Scattered throughout this surrealist landscape are moments of incredible poignancy. Carrey and Winslet don’t have chemistry in this film at all, they actually have history. Their electricity isn’t superficially sexual, it is a deep and profound affection that crosses over the barriers of erased memories. Easily my favorite performance from both, though this time Winslet has the poor impulse control and Carrey the overwrought emotionalism. Of all of his scripts to date, Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman’s most direct. It is difficult to miss the series of moments in the script that point outside of themselves, beyond the screen, and right into the heart of the audience. Joel and Clementine channel the unspeakable mix of hope and regret that few directors have been able to lay their finger on. Don’t watch this film if you have a few memories you can only revisit with a heartsick smile, it will only reacquaint you with their potency.
But all of this radical sentimentality is put into play to service a vision of love and relationships that we rarely see in film. In the end we find two people who realize that at times they are going to be bored and dissatisfied with each other and are willing to admit this to each other, but decide to build a life together anyway. This is brave stuff for Hollywood. The final scene, a hazy film loop of Joel and Clementine running together far way from us on a white beach becomes a moment that stands in for the entire film. From that final scene you catch a fleeting glimpse of a time when everything makes sense, when it all fits together. Whether it is a memory or not doesn’t matter, the film just wants to take us full circle from a false peace to – dealing with the discordance of having that mirage vanish to – a real peace.
Being John Malkovich leaves us confronted with issues of identity, and braces us prophetically for the wave of gender issues that have become part of this discussion. Adaptation shows us who we are in the stories we tell, as much a theoretical lecture on film as it is an awkward comedy in three insane acts. Eternal Sunshine is a highly personal encounter with love and loss, packed tightly into a frenetic hopscotch through time both real and imagined. Kaufman has built a career on these narrative oddities, pushing film to the borders of hipness. But Eternal Sunshine only evidences his knack for pointing out the things that count. In all of his films, after the first 30 pages or so of script we settle in for an acerbic and slightly comical farce about some key cultural issue. It always shocks us when something beautiful and true raises its head between his typically breathless scenes. But inevitably, by the time the credits roll one comes into contact with a storyline breathing with something startlingly human, something awkwardly profound and suggestive.