Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
Written by: Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman, Pierre Bismuth
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson
Kirsten Dunst’s character in this film refers to a couple of quotations by famous writers/thinkers, but one she doesn’t mention, one that’s actually quite pertinent to this story is the one by Kierkegaard, that one that “Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards.”
From the outset, you know this isn’t going to be your typical Jim Carrey outing. There’s going to be no cartoonish capering here; instead we’re treated to an opening shot of him asleep, a shot that captures in harsh detail every line and pore of his face. As he wakes, we follow him on his journey to work, where on the spur of the moment, he decides instead to catch another train, to Montauk, physically the end of the line for the Long Island Railroad, and just about as far away from New York you can travel eastwards and remain on dry land.
If this symbolism wasn’t enough for you, it’s worth remembering that the town of Montauk (where the two main characters initially meet) continually crops up in the myths and conspiracies surrounding the infamous Philadelphia experiment. In brief if you’re not familiar with the 80s film, the US navy was allegedly carrying out camouflage experiments during World War Two, and depending on your source, they either managed to turn a ship invisible or teleport it 375 miles across America. And apparently the US government continued these sinister experiments well into the eighties at Camp Hero in Montauk.
Having given all those tired conspiracy theories an airing, there’s no time travel in this film, just a narrative that’s as broken and fragmented as the relationship it delineates. When Joel (Carrey) discovers his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of him erased from her mind courtesy of a new scientific technique pioneered by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), he decides to undergo the same procedure. And then, just as the Clementines of his mind’s eye starts vanishing from his recall, he decides that he really doesn’t want to be parted from her after all.
As previously mentioned, the science-fiction elements of this film are a MacGuffin. Charlie Kaufman’s tale has more to do with the nature of love and companionship than string theory or faster-than-light travel. His conceit is the importance of memories, and how much of an effect they have on a person’s behaviour; Eternal Sunshine is the dissection of a failed romance with the caveat that neither protagonist will learn from their mistakes. But without making mistakes, how can any of us ever learn?
Stylistically, if you’re familiar with Michel Gondry’s music video oeuvre (and Kaufman’s previous collaboration with Gondry’s contemporary Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect; despite the occasional Cinéma vérité leanings, at the end of the film you may feel as if you’ve been watching MTV2 for two hours. A frenetic visual experience combined with Kaufman’s typically demanding story concept and plot, Eternal Sunshine is not recommended for a relaxing night’s viewing, lest you spend the rest of your evening poring over subtexts and semantics, attempting to decipher the film’s meanings. However, though it may be a labour to watch, it is a labour of love.
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