Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind Review

Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Adaptation was a fantasia on the them of storytelling, revelling in the sheer pleasure of narrative. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another fantasy, this time delving into the theme of memory and, more particularly, the memory of love. If this sounds a little academic then Kaufman’s achievement as a writer – and Michel Gondry’s impressive feat as a director – to place his intellectual concerns within a framework which is never less than riveting and often delightfully entertaining. There are good jokes here and some brilliantly conceived set-pieces of comic escalation. But there’s more; a profoundly moving sense of pain and loss and as potent a depiction of the aching sadness of broken relationships as anything I’ve seen in an American film since Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair. It’s takes a good deal of skill to combine cerebral conceits with genuinely complex depths of emotion and that’s one of the key reasons why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of the best films of 2004.

The film begins with a lengthy pre-credits sequence that is the centre of the whole story. Jim Carrey, giving his best ‘serious’ performance to date, plays Joel, an introverted but likeable schmuck who decides to spend Valentine’s Day – “A holiday created by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap” – at the beach in Montauk. He meets, unwillingly at first, a young woman named Clementine (Winslet), who attaches herself to him and makes a slightly lazy effort to seduce him. Getting together again, they spend a late winter’s night lying on the ice, staring at the stars. When they return, Clementine goes to her apartment to collect a few things and Joel is disturbed by a stranger tapping on his car window and asking him what he’s doing in a surprisingly perturbed manner. Cut to the credits and Joel is in his car, driving through a dismal night crying his heart out to a cover version of a lachrymose love song. Clementine has left him and gone to Lacuna Inc. a company dedicated to the removal of painful memories, in order to completely wipe Joel from her mind. Determined to get his own back, Joel chooses to return the gesture and demands, in turn, that Clementine be wiped from his memory. The process begins but all is not as it seems...

It’s hard to know quite how much to say about Eternal Sunshine without giving away some of the things which make it so deliciously unexpected and appealing. In particular, it would be appallingly unfair to give away the narrative twist which eventually places the prologue in a new and desperately poignant light. However, my discussion of the film will contain minor spoilers which could affect your enjoyment so jump down to my review of the disc if you feel this might be the case.

The opening contains many of the elements which make the film so beautiful to watch. Michel Gondry, best known for his music videos, has a method of pacing scenes in such a way that action moves swiftly while the tone remains dreamily relaxed. The editing is fast but not jarringly so. This proves to be vitally important for the later scenes of the film where time and place are deliberately obscured. The cinematography, by the excellent Ellen Kuras who has worked with Spike Lee, has a steely clarity which is intense and slightly too real, thus becoming slightly disorientating. Blues and oranges are emphasised amid desaturated winter landscapes and, crucially, we seem to be inside someone’s perception. The point is that the images have a hyperintensity which resembles the heightening and distorting qualities of memory. Also notable in this prologue is the way in which the sheer ecstatic high of being with someone you care about can overpower all rational considerations. This is important – how can you evoke the pain of love if you haven’t accepted the pleasure.

This atmosphere, so skilfully created, becomes the keynote of the whole movie. As the eradication process takes place, we see it from inside Joel’s brain as he gradually realises that his memories are being systematically destroyed, Despite this being his intention, albeit distorted by grief, he begins to realise that he doesn’t want to lose his memories. Memory, by its very nature, tends to exaggerate and heighten but this process occurs both with good and bad and Joel suddenly comes to a realisation that the eradication process is going to destroy his memories of happy times as well as painful. Joel moves from sadistic satisfaction at his revenge – “By morning, you’ll be gone. The perfect ending to this piece of shit story” – to desperation at trying to hold on to a part of his past that he doesn’t want to lose – “Please, please let me keep this memory.” Gondry and Kuras have found the perfect visual equivalent for the process, using various degrees of saturation and different types of film stock, and Gondry delights in using digital manipulation to represent the destruction of memory images.

These later scenes, in which Joel realises he doesn’t want to lose Clementine – she being as much a part of him as a separate individual – have an escalating sense of absurd comedy as the pair – now fully cogniscent of what’s happening – try to find obscure recesses of memory in which to hide. These vary from Joel’s humiliation – at being caught masturbating as a teenager by his mother – to his memories of being a baby and being bathed in the sink. In these scenes, Jim Carrey’s comic timing is used to perfection and it’s all the more effective because, for the rest of the film, Carrey keeps his familiar schtick well under wraps. I don’t think he’s ever been quite as appealing as he is here because he captures the sheer ordinariness of Joel with a touching accuracy. We might consider Joel to be a bit of a loser – and in a pivotal sense, he is – but he’s also a sympathetic loser and he appeals to the failure inside of us. Kate Winslet is equally good in a very difficult role. Clementine is required to be a combination of equal parts muse and fucked-up nightmare. If she sometimes seems to be a bit of a male construct, that’s quite appropriate since we always see her from a privileged male point of view. Winslet carries off the tricky task of making it entirely believable that someone would be equally eager to love her enough to stay with her and hate her enough to eradicate her from their memory. The pair go together well enough to make them a credible couple and this credibility extends to the horribly realistic scenes in which they tear each other apart.

A further angle is added to the film through the witty and unexpected characterisation of the staff of Lacuna Inc. One of the vaguely dissatisfying things about Total Recall, a film with which this shares some common threads, was that the Total Recall organisation never seemed quite believable as a going concern. Lacuna Inc. is different, run from a somewhat shabby set of offices by Dr Howard Mierzwiack (Wilkinson) and his associates. Tom Wilkinson has been a valuable presence in films for over a decade but he’s never been quite as pleasant company as he is here. Mierzwiack is a lovely character, a brilliant thinker whose private life is a hopeless mess and this adds another layer to the second half of the film. The rest of the staff are equally well characterised by Kirsten Dunst – growing up into one of the best actresses in American cinema – and the reliably quirky Mark Ruffalo. The only slight sore thumb is Elijah Wood who, even with appalling sideburns, can’t quite shake off the spectre of Frodo.

Yet, funny as the film is, the prevailing impression it leaves you with is one of immensely tender sadness. I can’t think of many recent films which have been so fragile and poignant as this one manages to be. The sadness of memory is that, essentially, it’s a collection of things we’ve lost and the tone of the film captures the bitter-sweet sensation of leafing through past times and trying to bring them back into the present. In some scenes – the iridescent haze of mutable sensation which heralds Joel’s return to his childhood and the beautiful time-lapse moment as his family home deteriorates and becomes a shack as he stands in front of it – Gondry has achieved something very special and beautiful. He invests the images with such tugging, tantalising emotional force that they become profoundly meaningful and moving. It’s an achievement on a par with what Tarkovsky achieved in Solaris and that’s not a comparison I use lightly. He seems to invite the viewer to actively engage with both the images and the emotions behind them and read themselves into the film. This leads to the second half of the film becoming oddly harrowing as the pain of Joel and Clementine seems almost too intensely real. Something happens, however, to make this most sweetly sad of films gain an edge which is strangely uplifting. The ending, which may on first viewing look like a Hollywood cop-out, seems to me to be a celebration – or perhaps a wake – of one of the most paradoxical and complex of human instincts; the insistence on believing that, against all the odds, things can always get better and we can change what seems, on the surface, to be a fait accompli.

The Disc

Momentum have developed a reputation for being one of the more reliable DVD distributors in the UK. In some respects, their release of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is praiseworthy. But it also contains a technical fault which mars the disc.

The visual transfer is generally excellent. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, this is a superbly crisp and detailed image which replicates the deliberately grainy appearance of the original film. The marvellously quirky use of colour comes across quite superbly. This is a very impressive picture.

Two soundtracks are provided. The first is a richly involving Dolby Digital 5.1 track which extends around the channels and highlights the gorgeous music score. Gondry’s visual magic extends to providing a soundtrack which places the viewer right in the middle of the action and the 5.1 track replicates this very well indeed. A DTS 5.1 Surround track is also provided. This is generally excellent and improves on the Dolby Digital 5.1 track in terms of range, with the ambient effects coming across a little more strongly. However, there are a couple of audio dropouts which are very noticeable and not present on the DD 5.1 track – these flaws are, apparently, not present on the US Region 1 release.

Although Momentum’s DVD clearly isn’t a fully-fledged special edition, the disc contains a few extra features. The best of them is, without doubt, the commentary by Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman. This is full of interesting and astute observations and comments on the decisions involved in making what was evidently a very complex film. There are, refreshingly, few dead spots. If you like the movie then this track will certainly enhance your enjoyment. We also get two featurettes. The first, running approximately 12 minutes, is a making-of piece which is brief but interesting as far as it goes, containing interviews with Gondry and several members of the cast. The second is a 15 minute conversation between Gondry and Jim Carrey that is somewhat quirky and how much you like it will be a matter of personal taste. Six deleted scenes are present but these are badly presented. Not only are timecodes present on the non-anamorphic letterbox bars but they seem to be coded to switch your player to anamorphic format and therefore appear stretched. You need to adjust your TV settings to watch them correctly. According to a review on Zeta Minor, Momentum are aware of this but are unwilling or possibly unable (the DVD being authored by Focus Features) to do anything about it. Finally, the extras are rounded out by the full commercial for Lacuna Inc. and a music video by Polyphonic Spree called “Light And Day”. I quite liked this last item for reasons I can’t quite explain. Sadly, the trailer – scored to “Mr Blue Sky” by ELO – isn’t on the disc.

English subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features. The film is divided into 20 chapter stops.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is an unexpected pleasure and I heartily recommend it. The UK R2 disc is generally impressive but is burdened with unnecessary technical flaws which could easily have been corrected.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:42:56

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