Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is among the greatest films of the 21st century. It bends the genre of romance with science-fiction, conveying the affect of memories on the psyche, and consequences of its erasure from the brain. Written by the mind-bending script guru Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), the plot unravels with erratic beauty; certain sequences go haywire. Bewildered moments are meticulously directed with wit, outmaneuvering audiences with surrealism. The films title derives from Alexander Pope’s poem “…the world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned.” In the interim, Michel Gondry’s groundbreaking masterpiece intrepidly demonstrates the discontinuation of screenwriting’s conventional three-act structure.
The film begins where it ends, on Valentine’s Day 2004 – “A day made to make people feel like crap.” Joel Barish says – a dispirited member of everyday people played by Jim Carrey. Joel crosses paths with Clementine (Kate Winslet), a mystified woman with multi-colored hair, and what ensues is infatuation followed by disenchantment; a falling in & out of love. After their relationship becomes unpleasant, Clementine submits herself to a medical operation by having memories of Joel surgically extracted from her brain via an innovative technological procedure. She undergoes the operation without informing him. When Joel sees her again, he’s heartbroken to find that Clementine has no cognizance of his identity. Forsaken and abandoned, Joel takes it as a sign of punishment; he decides to have the surgery performed on himself. Plausibly, the extraction doesn’t have a high effective rate; it doesn’t go as planned.
A neuroscientist, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), two lab technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) and their Secretary (Kirsten Dunst) struggle with the operation, causing Joel to experience his memories of Clementine in reverse. The film backwardly plays Joel’s memory degradation process as Michel Gondry implements experimental filmmaking techniques that appear psychedelic when first conceived, but are essentially a converse process of Joel & Clem’s romance; from the heartbreaking climax to their cloud-nine beginnings. During mid-treatment, Joel relives wonderful memories, long forgotten. His love for Clem is reawakened, causing regret for the procedure. The humbling nostalgia; a poignancy settles with an overwhelming reminder of heartbreak and second chances.
Michel Gondry’s forte is utilizing elements of Cinema’s mechanical fashions: the silent era, poetic realism and Soviet montage. At Lacuna Inc. (the futuristic corporation conducting the neurosurgery) Jim Carrey’s character needed to be in two places at once. Instead of implementing techniques from contemporary film movements (like L.A. Rebellion or The Movie Brats) with computer generated-imagery, Gondry directed Carrey to get off the hospital bed and hop around the camera amid a swift change in wardrobe; removal of a shirt. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a bold presentation with creative choices made in-camera, during production. With live-action/in-camera effects, Gondry separates himself in a class of his own as a groundbreaking, Avant Garde filmmaker. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is equally profound, about a characters’ amnesia, depicted with editing techniques.
As individuals, we are a result of our experiences. An eradication of memories; shrinking and evaporating as we grow and evolve with time. The dark and light of our past has created who we are today; a result of multiple relationships and engagements. To erase what may initially be perceived as unwanted, negative mementos, is ultimately an erasure of self. The profound words of Charlie Kaufman are translated on-screen by Michel Gondry, making us question our own memoirs as we watch the film. The ending is left open for interpretation. “What if you didn’t leave this time?” Clementine asks. The neuro-erasure was flawed; Joel and Clem still share memories; so they persevere with second chances. “It’d be different, if we could just give it another go around.”