dir: Michel Gondry
[img_assist|nid=990|title=The ice is cracking underneath, now, as always, young lovers|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=275]
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rarity in this day and age: a film that has elements of romance, drama and comedy without being hampered or paralysed by any of those aspects. In truth this film is beyond a rarity: it's a gem that stars, inexplicably, Jim ‘Ham on Rye' Carrey and Kate 'Let Me Get The Twins Out' Winslet playing two oddball characters that don't pander, don't beg us to love how cute they are and therefore circumvent the natural expectations that an audience member might have of a scriptwriter having to create a story we could possibly care about. One that doesn't ploddingly, predictably, stagger from point A to point B to point Zzzzz.
Let's face it romantic comedies are about as popular as syphilis to those of us that don't think Maid in Manhattan, the Wedding Singer and Pretty Woman are the pinnacle of the cinematic experience. Sure, I understand, we're ungrateful, but some of us aspire to something more out of film and of life. With that in mind when something comes along that's clever and sweet it seems fuckstruckingly out of place. What? It's funny AND romantic? Are the seas boiling? Is that sky falling? Isn't this one of the signs of the forthcoming Apocalypse?
It's a bittersweet story inventively told and engagingly realised that succeeds despite Carrey's best attempts to fuck things up. It's Jim Carrey after all, a guy that probably has to be tranquilised for roles like this in order to keep him under control. Like many of the scripts that idiot / savant Charlie Kaufman has thus far been responsible for, the entire story seems to hinge on only one kooky idea: what if the technology existed to allow people to have their painful memories erased? Would people use it to stop being paralysed by the past, by their bad choices, their missteps and their mistakes? If people did go down this path, would their identity, their sense of self remain the same?
Of course it leads into the tangential question of whether we are the sum of our memories, or whether the individual 'thing' that makes us who we are is essentially unique and independent of memory. The film of course doesn't get that existential or metaphysical, but it raises these interesting ideas for you to think about after the movie when you've used the bathroom and are drying your hands at one of those, er, hand dryers, and instead of thinking "What kind of a human could produce a smell like that?", you could be thinking "Am I the sum of my memories? If my beloved broke my heart, would I want the bitch and her cheating ways erased from my memory? Would it be right? What about that time in high school when I got beat up by a girl? Can they have a go at that too?"
They're interesting questions, but let's not give the impression that the film is a sober, reflective examination of these issues in rigid and excruciating detail. It's a relatively light story with a typically Kaufmanesque premise, played for the heart rather than the head. Head as in cerebral, not as in, "I'll get me some head if I take her to this movie and she likes it."
Remember people, the Bible says it is better to give than to receive, but of course the Bible may be lying to you. Only on this specific question, of course. Don't go all pitchforks, flaming torches and lynchy on me. I'm not badmouthing the holiest of holies.
Charlie Kaufman thus far has written the scripts for three films I have utterly loved (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and this purty film here), one film I didn't mind (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, no, not that film with Michelle Perfifer and Coolio singing about the Gangsta's Paradise ), and one film I have downright loathed (Human Nature). So overall one could say I await films made with his screenplays with a fair amount of anticipation. His most negative critics point to his scripts as being one joke / concept films stretched out from what should be a 5 minute short to feature length. Those that like him appreciate the fact that they're watching a film that has a script which contains at least five minutes of plot or dialogue that they haven't seen or heard hundreds of times before in a bunch of mediocre films. At their best, they're inventive and damn funny. At their worst they're strained and desperate.
Eternal Sunshine is definitely the former rather than the latter. Look, I admit it too, I find it hard to take Jim Carrey seriously in anything, and those that hate his guts will probably avoid this film like it's a public toilet seat. I don't blame them. But for my money at least Carrey can be good, or at least has been reasonably decent in this film and earlier in The Truman Show. You can't expect miracles from the guy, he is a fucking lunatic with an insanely passionate love of all things Carrey. But when he's subdued, his personae can work in his favour. By deliberately playing a depressed character when people expect him to be a zany 2 year old with attention deficit disorder, it gives the illusion that his character has depth. It's the same kind of trick Paul Thomas Anderson used in Punch Drunk Love, where audience anticipation fooled them into thinking Adam Sandler's character had all these layers and depths simply because he wasn't acting like the spaz people are accustomed to.
So decent directors know that if they somehow drug Jim Carrey and attach electrodes to his pink bits as a threat, he can do a reasonable job in the acting department. He is our main character here; Joel, a depressed and somewhat depressing guy who's had recent relationship problems and finds himself in a grand funk near the railway. For reasons neither he nor we can fathom at first, he catches the train to Montauk, a coastal town east of the Hamptons in the state of New York.
We are privy to his internal dialogue as he wanders about the place morosely. Out of nowhere comes a woman with brightly coloured hair called Clementine, who invades his space and acts all kooky and engaging. Kate Winslet is great in the role, but for her it's not a lot of hard work. She's an incredibly gifted actress, despite the fact that she will always be known for playing Gertrude in that epic of cheese Titanic. A film like this is a walk in the park for her.
She manages to make her character, both when she's playing ‘herself' and the idea of Clementine in Joel's memory, endearing without being cutesy. And seeing as their relationship has a smattering of depth to it, she can be pretty bitchy and abrasive as well. Both of our protagonists, despite the sci-fi premise, come across as genuine characters, not as yuppie wish-fulfilment empty ciphers that we're supposed to aspire to be. We don't need Joel and Clementine to be like us, or us like them, we just want to see what their love is like and what they might do to protect it.
From our point of view, at first we believe what occurs after we see Joel and Clementine get together is that the story progresses forward in time to their break-up. We get to watch through the contrivance of the memory erasure their relationship in reverse, so to speak. This isn't Memento with romance in mind. There are no kill crazy rampages either. More's the pity. Who wouldn't want to see Carrey's brains splattered all over the place? Ah, maybe that's too much to ask. Still, the film doesn't suffer for the lack of that occurring.
After finding out by accident that Clementine has had this procedure done, Joel, miserable and unable to move on, decides to have the wonderful people at Lacuna do the same to him. So for the majority of the story's duration, Joel is actually unconscious having some very unprofessional slackers ferret through the memory structures of his brain deleting any reference to Clementine.
Though he chose to do it, Joel's sub-conscious mind fights against the procedure, and he struggles valiantly not to lose memories of Clementine that have become precious to him. It represents graphically how people are said to not miss something until it's gone. Well he comes to cherish the only items he has left: his memories, some elaborate, some intensely banal of the times he spent with her all the more because they are disappearing right before his eyes.
To elaborate further on what occurs would destroy the fragile construction of what they've created here. It's often amusing, sometimes touching and occasionally quite affecting. There are ironies in the way the story plays out, great ironies which again shouldn't be written down. It'd be the equivalent of someone writing a review of The Sixth Sense and telling people what the big twist is at the end: Bruce Willis is a Christian, superhero alien. That would just be wrong. I will say however that this is one of a handful of films that uses an elliptical structure to great purpose and effect, whereas most movies seem to use it out of laziness. Elliptical, for those of you reading this that are ignoramuses or ignorami, I can never work that one out, structure in this context refers to the way that movies often seem to start at the end, then the whole story occurs in flashback, leading up to the ending as we first saw it, now forearmed with the knowledge of how the elements reach their destination. Most screenplays seem to do it because they feel it's a contractual obligation, whereas here it is entirely appropriate and also subverted at the same time, because what we believe the beginning to be is revealed to be something else entirely as the story progresses.
Of its exploration of the ideas having to do with love, one that tickled me the most was the manner in which an employee of Lacuna (the memory fuckers) played by Frodo claims to have fallen in love with Clementine and uses the accumulated material they've compiled on Joel and Clementine to pursue her and try to make her happy. I find that quite funny. The way it plays out is also quite amusing, in terms of what it says about the reasons why and the manner in which people ‘get together', and whether someone even with an unnatural level of
information can coerce such events.
Whilst I didn't appreciate the regular plugs to evil book, cd, dvd, and organ harvesting empire Barnes & Noble and that coffee place that has redefined omnipresence, there are some great scenes in the bookshop, giving us a visual manner in which to appreciate what is happening to Joel's memories. The books lose the writing on their pages, then their covers, until the shelves of Joel's memories are laid bare.
The deletions of memories and the side-tracks into earlier experiences is very well worked out. When Joel realises that Clementine will soon be gone from his existence permanently, he tries to find ways to confound the techniques of the nerds working on his brain. In collusion with a Clementine that exists only in mind, he tries to hide her in other memories from his childhood. I found it pretty entertaining.
As an overall concept of a person's memories and existence being akin to an old rickety house with hundreds of rooms filled with all manner of stuff, the film makes the image explicit with its multiple depictions of a beach house that played a significant role in Joel and Clementine's relationship.
This leads to a sequence of images that I have to admit took me by surprise. Whilst I've probably seen it before, but don't remember it necessarily (more to the film's point, I guess), there were these images of a snow covered beach which I found amazing. It's not that I haven't seen snow before, both on film and in real life obviously, but I can't remember a time where I've seen on film a beach that would otherwise be sand-covered, with shells, little kids making sand castles and fat guys wearing Speedos that contradict the laws of physics, covered in a hearty winter covering of snow. It looked real, and I can't imagine anyone gave director Michel Gondry a budget large enough to fake it, but it just looked amazing. I'm not entirely sure what the subtext significance of the continual winter imagery might be apart from as an external representation of Joel's sadness, but it certainly enhanced the story from my point of view.
It's not a full on, side-rupturingly funny extravaganza, nor is it the most romantic film I've ever seen. It is however a clever and touching film, which I heartily enjoyed. I hated Michel Gondry's first film Human Nature, and am not willing to give it another shot. I will say however that I heartily enjoyed his second attempt. For someone who's criticised for having directed a stack of amazing film clips, he showed here at least that a film is more than the sum of its parts, and manages to sustain the story's momentum for the film's entire length, not allowing it to simply rely on its novel premise.
Easily one of the best films I've seen this year. Sure, that's in comparison with crap like Van Helsing, Troy and The Punisher, so it doesn't seem like that much of a competition. It's still true. Though, according to the film, the next time I enjoy a night of heavy drinking (I call them Thursdays), it'll cause the equivalent amount of brain damage to having my memory erased. Who knows, I could have my memory of this film evaporate like whisky left in a glass too long. The upside of that is I would get to discover my love of it all over again.
9 opportunities Kate Winslet had to expose her breasts and didn't out of 10
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd
- Eloise to Abelard, Alexander Pope