Judge Dave Ryan waxes poetic on one of the most fascinating and thoughtful films of the year.
Our reviews of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (HD DVD) (published May 9th, 2007) and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind: Collector's Edition (published February 21st, 2005) are also available.
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
-- Alexander Pope, "Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard" (1717)
Memory is a harsh mistress. The same human characteristic that serves to preserve all of our happiest moments can also haunt us with our tragedies and troubles. But what if that could be changed? What if you could selectively eliminate any memories you wanted to forget? And what if it was surprisingly affordable? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by red-hot screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), explores this very question through the lens of a failed romance. The result is a fascinating film; one that raises deep philosophical issues without turning into a turgid lecture on life. Largely overlooked by moviegoers (but not critics) during its theatrical release, this is unquestionably one of the best films of the year.
Facts of the Case
Thou know'st how guiltless first I met thy flame,
It is a cold Long Island morning, and Joel Barish (Jim Carrey, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask) is somewhat disoriented. He discovers two years' worth of pages missing from his journal, but he can't remember tearing them out. He finds his car damaged—and figures a careless neighbor must have caused it. He heads for the train to commute into New York for the workday, but suddenly, on impulse, boards a train for remote Montauk, way out on the very eastern tip of the island.
Although it's the middle of the winter, and he's walking on a windswept, frigid beach in Montauk, Joel finds that he's not alone. There's an attractive young woman on the beach as well. What are the odds of that? On the train home, he finds the young woman seated in the same car. Joel's a quiet, reserved chap, and doesn't do anything beyond staring. The woman, though, is a bit more vivacious. Seizing the day, she comes over and introduces herself, and generally forces Joel into a conversation. Her name is Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet, Titanic), she's a bit of a free spirit, and—wonder of wonders—she happens to live right near him.
Emboldened by her attention, Joel actually calls her up when they get back home. A long and successful date follows, and things certainly look good for the couple.
Then, the opening credits roll. Twenty minutes in.
Canst thou forget that sad, that solemn day,
We jump back a few days, and suddenly the truth is laid bare for us: Joel and Clementine have been dating, and living together, for two years. Their relationship is in tatters; Clementine has just moved out after a particularly nasty fight. Joel discovers, thanks to a pair of mutual friends, that Clementine has had him erased from her memory.
A company called Lacuna, headed by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson, The Full Monty, Shakespeare In Love), has developed a technique to selectively erase memories in a reasonably safe manner. Clementine, in a typically impetuous move, decided to have Joel removed in this way. Aghast, Joel does the only thing he can think to do—he, too, goes to Lacuna, and asks to have Clementine removed from his memories.
But thanks to the incompetence of the Lacuna tech assistants assigned to his case (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood), Joel isn't completely unconscious when the process begins. He's experiencing each memory as the Lacuna techs identify and eliminate it. As he moves backwards through his memories of Clementine, he begins to wonder if the memory erasure procedure was such a good idea…
Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;
This film moved me in a profound way; a way no other film has ever moved me. I'd like to beg your collective indulgences while I commit the cardinal sin of bringing too much of the reviewer into the review.
Of all the traits that make us human, memory is the most mixed of the "gifts" from our Maker. It gives, but it can take as well. Whether or not it was their intent, Charlie Kaufmann and director Michel Gondry have managed to illustrate this brilliantly, in a way that only poets usually accomplish. For this is a film all about memory—about the cruel tricks it can play on us, and about the profound joys it can simultaneously bring.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (henceforth "Eternal Sunshine") is nominally a comedy, albeit a dark comedy. And indeed, it is a funny movie (albeit darkly funny). But it is so much more than that. It is a psychological autopsy of a relationship gone wrong; a relationship that goes awry despite the burning desire of both parties to make it work. We first learn of the trials and ultimate collapse that the Joel/Clementine relationship undergoes. All of this comes as a shock, because we've seen how…well, how cute they are together on the train in the opening act, and suddenly they're obviously coming apart at the seams. Once we figure out the underlying plot of the film—Joel is having his memories erased after Clementine had hers done—we start to understand the narrative. We're going backwards through their relationship, on a journey through Joel's memories; something they themselves did not have the opportunity (or the desire) to do. Ultimately Clementine herself becomes our guide. But who is she, really? Is it the real Clementine, who has forged some kind of psychic or Jungian connection with Joel? Is it Joel's conscience, calling him out for his failures? Or is it Joel's conscious self in disguise, finally analyzing his life and recognizing the turning points he missed? And in the end, does it really matter who is guiding us, as long as the journey is made?
Eventually the journey leads us back to the beginning—the time when Joel and Clementine first fell in love. All is well at this point; Joel's knowledge of what we know was to come for them makes these scenes all the more melancholy. But it also demonstrates something important: these two fell in love for a reason. It was not something that lacked a basis in reality; these people meshed.
And then, it is gone. The entire relationship, good and bad, has disappeared. This is Kaufmann's deftest play in the script: he forces each of us, in our own way, to ask ourselves whether Joel has done the right thing. And it's a question many of us should—or even must—answer in our own lives as well.
I doubt there's a single person out there who wouldn't consider this kind of mental erasing procedure if it were a reality, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Nothing is more personal, nothing is more sensitive, and nothing burns deeper into our memories, with more violence, than a love affair gone bad (with the probable exception of parental abuse at a young age). Some people are gifted with short memories—they live for the moment, and memories have no place in their psychological makeup. But for the rest of us, memories linger. Personally, I'm one of the sorriest lot. I've been cursed with a good memory. It's not an intrinsically bad thing—after all, it helped me skate through grade school and high school with a minimum of effort. But it also haunts me; storing details of not just the good times, but also all of the petty failures, moments of transitory pain or shame, and, of course, all the major catastrophes from my 34 years of existence. All of them right there, waiting, ready to spring out when most unwanted and most unexpected.
Alexander Pope, the great English poet, knew of what I speak. "Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard," which gives this movie its title, is the tale of a woman haunted by the memory of love, who runs to a convent in an attempt to replace her love of Abelard (whom she cannot be with, for societal reasons) with her love of God. She fails, and lives out her days unable to shed the memory of what might have been.
Like many (perhaps all) people in the world (save for the most fortunate among us), I have my own Abelard; my own Clementine in my past. I doubt I'll ever feel quite the same about another person ever again. Despite two years of our best efforts to remain close friends after failing in romance, things finally ruptured once and for all over the umpteenth pointless fight caused by miscommunication and stubbornness. We haven't spoken for nearly three years. There are a lot of painful memories in my head, the foremost being the knowledge that a once-wonderful friendship seems to no longer exist. But the good times are still in my memory as well; and through memory, she still makes me smile and laugh.
And yet, like Joel wandering among his memories of Clementine, I realize that none of this is real. The true person has moved on from me; I know nothing of her life today—who she loves, from whom she seeks comfort, who makes her laugh. All I know is that it ain't me, and all I have is the echo of someone who once was, but who no longer may be, the person I knew.
Ere such a soul regains its peaceful state,
And then I watched Eternal Sunshine, and, as Bob Dylan said, every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin' coal. I was with Joel every step of the way, because I, too, have often secretly wished I could erase my Clementine from memory. Of course that would be a good idea, that would get rid of the bad memories and solve all my problems—right? But eventually, the movie confronted me with its key question: was it a good idea for Joel to erase Clementine? And therefore, would I be right to erase my own Clementine if I could?
I found, to my surprise, that I couldn't answer the question. I thought about the subtext of the film; the idea that Joel and Clementine, after the procedure, were fated to just repeat their original relationship. (A highly existential concept, when you think about it. C.f. Les Jeux sont Fait, by Jean-Paul Sartre.) Does that change the calculus? Are things truly inalterable, rendering the erasure pointless?
After a long period of thinking, I came to my own personal conclusion about the film, and its message: Whatever pain and suffering Joel and Clementine may have had, there was also great joy in their relationship. That joy is valuable. Was Joel right to erase Clementine? Ultimately, I think the answer has to be no. In doing so, he lost the part of her that had become an intrinsic part of him, and therefore diminished himself. But only at the end of the film do we realize the message that was there for all to see right at the beginning: there is always hope for change, even if we can't see how it could possibly happen. It's an uplifting message; one that (ironically) was not intended in the original script (as Kaufmann discusses in his commentary), and probably isn't intended in the final product. Yet that's what I took away from the film.
That is why this is a great film: it doesn't spoon-feed us trite Dr. Phil-level solutions to virtually unsolvable problems. It gives us the naked facts of this relationship, and lets us decide who's "right" and who's "wrong," if those terms are even applicable in this instance. And it does so via a unique narrative, in a brilliantly-photographed picture, with subtle and nuanced performances from its stars. How many films today make you think—make you actually sit down and ask yourself, "how does this relate to my life, and my personal situation?" Films that achieve this, and that do so without insulting the audience's intelligence, are true gems of cinema.
Jim Carrey is shockingly good in this role. Carrey has made his name as a rubberfaced over-the-top slapstick comedian, but here he shows tremendous dramatic skill and—gasp!—subtlety. This role, for him, is the equivalent of Bill Murray's Oscar-nominated turn in Lost in Translation—a performance that will forever change our views of him. Winslet, whose acting skills are often overlooked, is unexpectedly perfect as Clementine. She even manages to pull off a flawless American accent. Wilkinson, Ruffalo, and Wood don't really have large roles, but do bring life to their characters. The only weak link is Kirsten Dunst (Bring it On), who plays Mary Svevo, Lacuna's receptionist. She's the key figure in the film's primary subplot, but her performance left me a bit cold. There could have been more substance in her character, but there wasn't. Still, I wouldn't call her performance "bad"—just disappointing.
Picture and sound are very solid; the anamorphic widescreen presentation captures Gondry's artistic and unique cinematography very well. This is a beautiful film, full of shots that rival the best in photography. Gondry, who made his name directing Bjork's elaborate music videos, is definitely a director to watch in the future.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The disc is a bit thin on extras. The behind-the-scenes segment is standard unilluminating studio fare, and the "unparalleled discussion" between Gondry and Carrey is interesting, but hardly "unparalleled"—unless you count the fact that they're sitting at grade-school desks during the interview. Finally, the commentary track was disappointing. Kaufmann ultimately has very little to say, and Gondry's French accent is so thick that he's frequently incomprehensible. (Which is unfortunate, since the few things I could understand were fairly interesting.)
Also, if you are one of the fortunate ones who lack any real emotional baggage in your life, you probably just won't relate to this film. Consider yourself fortunate, and laissez les bontemps roulez.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a powerful and fascinating film that deserves powerful praise. It is more true-to-life than any similarly-themed film has ever been, despite its "sci-fi" plot. It is strikingly different in style, but crystal clear in its message. It is a story that is movingly told, and to which virtually every viewer should be able to relate somehow. If you are a movie fan, or someone who has had your heart broken, you owe it to yourself to investigate this shining gem of a film.
I struggled for nearly two weeks to come up with a good, non-routine way to review this film. Then, I unexpectedly received an email from my Clementine—the first contact in nearly three years. (Ah, the power of the Red Sox.) Suddenly, I was thrown into Joel's shoes all over again, but this time with direct urgency—and suddenly, I knew what I had to write. Joel discovered, buried in the depths of his memory, some messages he should have been able to communicate directly to Clementine, but which probably would have fallen on deaf or unwilling ears had he done so, because the time for them had long since passed. Will that happen to me? Am I metaphorically sitting on that train back from Montauk now, about to rediscover the things that once upon a time established a strong friendship? I don't know. All I know is that I'm not going to wish my Clementine out of my memory anymore, because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind showed me the true costs of that action. That, my friends, is the mark of a powerful motion picture—one I whole-heartedly recommend.
Yet here for ever, ever must I stay;
Not guilty on all counts. The film should, if justice prevails, be a strong Oscar contender this year.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• A Look Inside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.