It’s no exaggeration to say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind changed my life. I was just a naïve freshman (in high school) when it came out, but it’s safe to say the advanced screening I went to — where I won the soundtrack on CD because I knew Jim Carrey’s first movie was Once Bitten — was a major moment in my shift toward writing as my main focus.
I couldn’t help but write about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I had never seen anything like it before. In fact, there really hasn’t been anything like it since either. Both writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry have made interesting films separately, among some of the most unique in cinema, but they’ve never come close to matching their finest collaboration.
So rarely has a film captured the intoxicating highs and gut wrenching lows of a relationship. It’s both joyous and quietly devastating, often in the same scene.
Jim Carrey, capping his trio of great dramatic performances, plays Joel Barish, the sad-sack worker bee who impulsively calls in sick to work to take a train to Montauk on a frigid Valentine’s Day. Though his archetype has long been copied in indie rom-coms since, he’s the genuine article. He injects his character with life. He’s not merely “mopey.”
On the train back home, Joel meets Clementine (Kate Winslet, giving her career-best and least typical performance). Again, as a true free spirit, Winslet may be a template for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she defines it and defies it at the same time. She gives Clem real emotion, not just a series of quirks.
In the characters’ past, they were deeply in love, but after a nasty break-up in which both brought out the knives, Clem sought out the services of Lacuna, which specializes in erasing painful memories. Joel decides to do the same, but during the procedure — overseen by technicians Patrick (Elijah Wood), Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) — tries to opt out. Which is a little difficult to do if you’re unconscious.
Eternal Sunshine features characters all clinging to something that’s not real. While Joel’s memories may be real, they’re often rosier than he remembers. Stan, while enjoying his casual relationship with Mary, knows she pines for her boss (Tom Wilkinson). Worst of all is Patrick, who stole all of Clementine’s memories of Joel — along with her panties — in an attempt to copy that love. A decade ago, I found all that to be utterly creepy. Now, I just find it unbelievably sad. He’s so desperate, he’d rather replicate a failed relationship than try to start one on his own.
But the real magic of the film happens in Joel’s subconscious. That’s because every single aspect of the film is meshing together beautifully.
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras shoots each scene with a variety of filters and lighting set-ups to better capture the fluid nature of dreams: sometimes you’re in a bookstore, but when you walk down the hall you’re suddenly at your friends house. The harsh fluorescent lights at the former better capture Joel’s humiliation after being rejected by Clementine, the lamp at the latter feels more cozy as he relays his confusion in a safe place.
Jon Brion’s music perfectly sets the tone of every scene, whether it’s anger, lightheartedness, fear or joy. It’s one of the all-time great film scores.
But most of the technical brilliance rests on the shoulders of editor Valdís Óskarsdóttir, who took on the herculean task of stitching this whole thing together. There are moments when scenes play on top of each other and past scenes occupy the same space as new ones. Yet it’s never hard to follow. What he accomplishes is one of the greatest technical achievements ever, and somehow he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.
The only Oscar the film did win was a much-deserved award for Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay, which remains both incredibly original but never so out-there that it feels detached. This is a completely human story wrapped in a science fiction adventure.
No matter how painful our memories of past loves lost are, they should never be erased or completely forgotten. You learned something from them, even if it didn’t hit you until after it was over. Eternal Sunshine reminds us of that. Most importantly, depending on your reading of the final scene, it teaches us that no matter how much pain we’ve suffered, we should always be open to love, even if it might hurt us again.
A decade later, Eternal Sunshine still hits me like a punch in the gut. But it’s also a beautiful reminder that love, even with its high cost, is a journey worth taking over and over again.