Relationships end sometimes. It’s a fact of life. You fall in love, inevitably something goes wrong. You grow apart, you fight, you may have financial troubles – the causes are limitless. It’s a hard fact of life, and it’s rarely easy. Sometimes a hard break up can lead people to drink, to look for temporary fulfillment of some kind, to hit bottom. The point is, it’s a messy part of life. Emotions are hard, and dealing with loss is a very hurtful and difficult process.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” explores the idea of the broken relationship with the idea of simply wiping it away. One day you hurt from the loss, the next you wake up with no memory of it – and by “it” I mean no memory of the entire relationship. Every movie you saw, every dinner you ate, every single day and every possible memory associated with that person is simply gone. The idea is tempting I’m sure, particularly when the wounds are fresh. But if a person is the sum of his memories, what happen when the memories are taken away?
This is one of those strange little screenplays by Charlie Kaufman. He’s the man who brought us such films as “Being John Malkovich”, “Human Nature”, and “Adaptation” (for the last one he created his own fictional twin brother to assist in writing the screenplay for the un-filmable book “The Orchid Thief”). There is a thematic element to all of his films involving memories, the human experience, and control of ones own consciousness that is indescribable. He doesn’t write normal stories, but rather stories about normal people in highly abnormal and unreal situations. This particular story is told slightly out of order from a narrative sense, with the first scene in the film being one of the last ones in the story, not to mention all the flashbacks within Joel’s memory as it is being erased, but more on that later.
Quite simply it is the story of a couple (Clementine and Joel) who are just meeting for the first time. They see one another on a train and begin an awkward conversation much like the ones most of us have when we meet someone new for the first time. Joel is intrigued by Clementine from the beginning. They spend the night together, and that’s all we see. We are now taken to a completely different point in time. Joel and Clementine have broken up and Joel is severely distraught over it. He goes to find her to see if they can patch it up, but she doesn’t even recognize him. Eventually friends tell him she has had a process done to wipe the memory of him and their entire history from her mind. Not believing this is possible he visits the clinic. Upon hearing a tape of Clementine stating why she wanted the process done, Joel decides to also go through with it. This is where the movie takes us down the metaphorical rabbit hole.
What would mapping our memories look like? Would it go in a fairly straight line or would it be a web of little cognitive links making us associate certain experiences, smells, sounds with certain people and places? I personally think it would be an amazingly complex mess that only the most brilliant well trained people could possibly hope to understand. That’s not who performs the process on Joel. Basically the technicians are the rough equivalent of cable installation guys. They pop in, place a contraption on Joel’s head and let the computer go to work wiping Clementine from his brain. What the techs fail to know, however, is that the brain is quite aware when it’s being messed with.
From this point we see their relationship in reverse. Instead of seeing their first meeting (again?), we see a drunken argument. but over this is Joel’s narration knowing what happens next. He knows these memories are leaving him and isn’t sad to see them go. But inevitably, memories soon come that he wants to keep. The memories of the good days are going to go to. This isn’t a good thing at all, and he starts taking measures inside his own mind to protect the memory of Clementine. Time falls apart as a childhood past is suddenly crashing in on a very adult future. Horrific and embarrassing memories that Clementine, at least the Clementine of his mind, is now privy to.
Meanwhile as the drama in Joel’s head continues, there is a completely different story involving the technicians, the Doctor in charge, and his assistant. The stories develop in parallel both in Joel’s apartment, and in his head. It’s really a fantastic piece of story telling all around That Michael Gondry directs absolutely fearlessly.
I have seen this film several times as it relates to me on a very personal level. I am 43 years old now, and have had my share of relationships. Some ended amicably, and some ended very badly. When the sting of a breakup was very fresh I can understand wanting to wipe it all from my mind. Wanting to forget I ever even knew that person. However, time heals all wounds. I am able to look back on many of those memories quite fondly. The bad stuff gets mostly forgotten, but the good memories remain. I don’t want to forget many of the movies I saw, places I visited, and quiet moments I enjoyed in the past with someone who was quite special to me at the time. Those experiences, for good are bad, made me who I am today.
In addition to the story, this film has an extremely unique the visual style. The film never seems to look unreal, even when memory is crumbling and cars are falling from the sky. It looks like a hyper real dream throughout. It looks like a human mind having a very bad reaction to being messed with, rebelling in every sense combining elements and memories that simply don’t belong together. It’s a dream and a nightmare at the same time, yet feels extremely poignant and personal.
The performances in this film are all elevated by the material the actors have at their disposal. Jim Carey is a different man in this film than we have ever seen. He gives a very subtle performance full of feeling and raw emotion. Kate Winslet is a free spirit who really seems to embrace the role as if it were in fact written specifically for her. The Technicians, played with wry humor and a little bit of creepiness by Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo add the right amount of comic relief, while Tim Wilkinson and Kirsten Dunst provide a tragic counterpoint.
Selecting movies for this blog isn’t always an easy task. I have said before that movies can be very personal, that all appreciation for a film is deeply subjective. We all have our own experiences when we watch a movie, and that experience could be entirely different based on when and how we see it. This is a film a lot of people won’t like, or maybe won’t get. That’s fine. To me it was a very human film dealing with very human thoughts and emotions. It’s a movie about the lessons we learn in life, and accepting them rather than running from them. Embracing pain, not shying away from it. In the end, every experience has something to teach us.