“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a surreal love story that sincerely reflects on the complications of love and heartbreak
Written by Victor DeBonis
Love is an extremely complicated experience. Relationships, in particular, are complicated as well in the sense that, as much as we want to make things go completely right with them, there will always be something different about another person that just catches us off-guard and has us fall head over heels for that other person and transforms us. That can be for better or worse. Sometimes, when a relationship heads too far south, it can be hard to know what to make of where you and the other person need to go after that, especially if you two were, at one point, so tightly knit and connected with each other. A person can’t explain why or logically express it. That love, that passion, just sprouts and clutches wherever its roots crawl, similar to a seed buried within the earth, and, if someone were to somehow extinguish everything that came from that love in the first place, there’s no telling how that person will be from that point forward or what he or she is like without that love.
So, I’m all the more thankful that an incredible movie, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was concocted back in 2004, can capture all of this and more about the euphoria and painful struggle of love in every sense of the word. Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman excel in bringing a fascinating strangeness and vision that is sincere, comedic, unpredictable, and too heartbreakingly true all at once. As a sensitive soul, I always embrace a great story centering around love, platonic or romantic, yet I’m normally cautious when I approach a movie of the latter type of love. Classic cinematic tales of romance (comedic or dramatic), such as “When Harry Met Sally” “10 Things I Hate About You” and the animated “Beauty and the Beast” serve as testaments to the idea that, with enough well-guided passion and the right drive and talent, something wonderful can come from this. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, one also needs to be different enough and devote enough sincerity and care and avoid being too formulaic if one wants to win my emotions and attention with their movie about the heart.
“Eternal Sunshine” accomplishes all of this and more, twisting heartstrings in astonishing ways but also making the audience ponder and reflect on how much one can get their heart broken and what a complicated mess it can be just trying to put the pieces back together again and move forward. It’s a deep plunge through the mind and a vastly different take on the romantic love story that traces back to where two people started out, try to make sense of how they got there, and fight to figure out why it’s so challenging to move on from each other when their once promising passion for each other ultimately crashed and burned.
As prominent as Gondry’s role is in making this wonderful gift of a film what it is, it would be criminal to overlook Kaufman’s part. With films that include “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” Kaufman has earned a special recognition for telling stories that have an incredibly surreal and off-beat feeling to them but still have a human touch and intrigue that leaves audiences eager to find out more. This film continues to follow that similar sensibility by diving into the familiar concept of trying to overcome a broken relationship but doing so in a different way by actually exploring what could possibly go through one’s mind if they actually went the route of trying to literally remove every memory of their loved one. By taking this path, Kaufman’s script navigates through moments that transition between joyful playfulness and passion to hostile bitterness and anger and back again in ways that sometimes require, for instance, yanking our main leads across the floor in the middle of Grand Central or quietly remove tables and backgrounds as soon as memories end. It’s an off-putting way of dissolving from one memory to another that oddly makes sense with what is going on with our characters and what they’re trying to forget or recover.
The unusual score from Jon Brion feature segments in which stringed instruments sporadically play and drift in and out from an otherwise silent background. Brion’s music shifts back and forth in a manner that is not unlike what our main leads are experiencing, and it heightens the unusual atmosphere alon with the feeling that something is not completely right, both mentally and in reality with our broken characters. Small, changing details, such as the titles of bookstore racks and restaurant tables silently disappearing, also add to the sense that these characters are not only experiencing the gradual loss of their memories but a crucial part of who they are and the uniqueness of what came from their special bond with each other.
Gondry approaches this story with a vision that clearly respects how vulnerable a wounded heart is but also isn’t afraid to explore the pain and uneasy shifts of feelings that come with it. To help tell this tale in a different yet authentic way, he utilizes many practical methods, including shooting much of his film with wheelchairs and sled dollies instead of the regular, steadier dollies. As a result, scenes are shot in a way that feels slightly more unstable and almost mimic the “shaky cam” approach that’s rarely used well. Here, however, this way of filming makes sense, since it perfectly matches the broken point of view and unsteady demeanor of the main couple. This method, in addition with the surreal, dream-like transitions of the memories, makes the audience feel as though they’re actually part of this pair and seeing and experiencing everything through them but also noticing the hasty emptiness that is coming from having their memories of each other sucked away. By doing everything in its power to have the audience experience what these characters are going through and show the relatable way in which they’re struggling to make things work with each other, this movie encourages its viewers (and especially myself) to connect with the romantic story in a way that hasn’t been felt to this extent by me in some time.
All of the actors are wonderful in this. Perhaps, it‘s best for me to start by discussing Jim Carrey and his performance. Being the 90’s kid that I was, I always held a solid respect for Carrey and his career that traces itself back to when my family and I saw and rented “The Mask” so many times that I could probably quote most of the movie in a blindfolded state. Much like Robin Williams, I and other kids from my generation loved him partly because he came across as this live-action cartoon character that we couldn’t help but admire. Even when he could sometimes do performances that were a little too over-the-top, there was no denying how much talent and humor came from the sheer way that he moved and carried himself and contorted his body with all of that energy.
In addition to his comedic performances, however, I’ve always appreciated Carrey for taking chances and occasionally experimenting with dramatic roles. While the overall results of a dramatic film that he was involved in didn’t always pan out, such as with “The Majestic” and “The Number 23” I always appreciated him being courageous enough to challenge himself and not settle for being seen only as the physical clown. And, his performance in “Eternal Sunshine” is a perfect example of what wonders Carrey can demonstrate in the dramatic field. In his role as introverted Joel Barrish, he adopts a soft, almost wounded voice that is sometimes at a loss for words, in general. Carrey contains a gaze that feels as though he’s constantly searching for something and aching even harder from not being able to completely figure out what he’s looking for with himself and with his relationship. There’s an evident loss and passion that breathes from his gaze and uncertainty, and Carrey is completely believable and empathetic in every scene that he’s in. I can’t remember the last time that I saw this talented actor show this much vulnerability and credible hurt. It’s easily one of Jim Carrey’s finest performances.
Kate Winslet plays against type, too, as Barrish’s ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczysnki, trading the role as a quieter woman from a historical drama to instead portray someone who’s much louder and brasher. She completely excels in her role, playing the one who erases her memories first to overcome her pain from the break-up and effectively plays a brash, emotional “wild card” who changes her hair color all the time and hops around from remaining joyful and giggly in one moment to switching into a hostile and bitter mood in the next scene.
As different as these two characters are, they have sincere chemistry with each other. They bounce off of each other’s frustrations but also reflect and talk to one another with a humor and happiness that feels real and comes across as something that was once really there before the relationship turned more sour. When the characters’ emotions and experiences change back and forth, the audience feels as though it’s right there with them, since many of us have experienced relationships like these in the sense that such bonds don’t often make sense but nevertheless carry an undeniable spark or connection that just stays with us and is so hard to let go of. The emotional honesty between the two of them echoes the reality that their relationship was, at one point, an unexpected but strong and joyful one.
And, even if one would want to argue that the bond was shared by people who are very broken in different ways and was doomed to end, it could also be argued that the brokenness between them, the unspoken (and spoken) yearning for both of them to fully connect with a special person and feel accepted, was what helped them grow closer to each other and fall in love as strongly as they did in the first place. To me, some of the most interesting relationships in film often revolve around people who are so odd or outcast in their own ways, find each other, and discover truths that, for better or worse, reveal so much about themselves and their own journeys that we can’t help but want to learn more about them. Carrey and Winslet are a perfect example of such a unique couple. Together, they shed a brutally honest light on the effort and passion that can pour into a relationship and the sheer destruction and anger that can erupt when it’s harder to know how to navigate such a strong bond between two incredibly different people.
Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirsten Dunst are also excellent as the team of misfit technicians that are in charge of wiping away Carrey’s memories. They provide breaths of fresh air to the somber nature of what’s happening with the memories that are being erased in terms of bringing a bit of comedic relief with some of their antics. Although they’re fairly smart, they often prove themselves to be a bit reckless by doing acts, such as smoking weed around their unconscious patient. Despite this, they still lend a heavy amount of charm and humor to their roles. Plus, in their sadder moments, they show that they have an intelligence and heart to them that just happens to be overshadowed by their own lust and struggle to control their impulses. Not unlike some people from a party, one doesn’t always know what they’re going to do, but they’re still incredibly likable and plenty of fun to be around. Tom Wilkinson, similar to almost every other project that he’s involved in, works wonderfully, and he lends a professional demeanor and sternness that is more than welcome. All of these are terrific performers who provide a relaxed nature to this conflict but also aren’t invulnerable from their own issues with the heart as well.
This film respectfully touches upon ideas regarding how hard it is to move on from someone who we love with all of our heart and being but are having problems with and can’t figure out how to make a specific relationship work. As much as we want to rationalize why a relationship or even friendship ultimately doesn’t work or is having problems, the plain truth is that, while it is important to surround yourself with healthy and ultimately fulfilling relationships, love is not something that we can completely figure out through logic, as though it’s a type of science on its own. How we connect with others, platonically and especially romantically, comes from what our hearts are seeking, along with the experiences that we build with who we love and what we learn about that person and ourselves from such relationships. That genuine passion and trust that we discover from being with someone that we truly love can make it all the more heartbreaking when, somewhere down the line, those same strong feelings, that (Please pardon me if this term comes across as a bit corny.) “magic” that you once felt and shared with the one that you loved is just not present anymore, no matter what you and the other person does in the relationship to improve the situation. Carrey and Winslet’s complicated love story and its moments, whether they’re happy or hurtful, completely echo all of these ideas in the most sincere and heartbreaking ways imaginable. Through the large ups and downs that follow through their relationship, we can unquestionably see where some of the cracks were starting to appear, but we also get a good glimpse of the extremely complicated thing that love itself is.
If I can get personal for a moment, this movie has meant much to me, in particular, for specific reasons that hit close to home. True, I adore this film for its acting, its direction, and its incredibly unique approach to its story and how strange and achingly real it is with its execution. However, I also carry a heavy amount of respect for it for helping me to cope with a few relationships from my own life in which complicated feelings and emotional difficulties occurred with people in my life who I sincerely cared about and even held some attracted feelings towards them in a few cases. The emotional and mental pain that came from these relationships took a toll on me, and I’m not particularly proud to admit that, in my weaker moments, I would sometimes wonder how much easier things would be if my memories of this person were somehow erased for both the benefit of me and the other person in the relationship.
Of course, I’d come to my senses and recognize that thinking in that manner and wishing to remove such memories was wrong and not healthy. Yet, with so much frustration from what was going on, I couldn’t remove myself from thinking that way. There were experiences in my own life in which I’d try to cope with strong relationships that had gradually lost most of the “magic” and optimism and strong understanding that they once possessed. Countless times, I’d revisit my memories, both and good, and ask myself: What missteps did I take? What happened with the other person in the relationship, and what changed? Why do we sometimes end up hurting some of the people that we care about the most, no matter what we say or do, and how could this relationship that started off so happy end up feeling so broken? Situations, such as these, could hurt my emotional health and bring complications to areas, such as my depression.
I bring all of this up because this movie has played a small part in helping me cope with these types of relationship issues that I’d run into (Going to counseling has helped with issues, such as these, too, and played an even greater part in helping me recover.). This movie lets me know that I wasn’t alone in feeling this pain in several ways. It knows what it’s like to glance back at a relationship and wonder how a relationship that ended up being shattered or broken started off as something so genuine and beautiful. It knows that love, particularly the romantic kind, can be wonderful, but it can also sometimes hurt us in the most painful ways, especially when it’s with someone that we treasure and try our best to understand through the struggles that come through the relationship. And, it played a part in helping me to discover that, similar to how people can change, relationships (romantic or otherwise) and the stories that come from them change as well. They shift and transform in ways that would stagger us if we took the time to think about it all. And, even if things don’t get that much better for the relationship, we’re not alone in trying to overcome the pain and heartbreak as frustrating and wounding as it may be.
This film is not only one of my favorite romantic films but one of my favorite movies, in general, partly because, while I don’t expect this movie to perform any miracles, I feel that, if it spoke to me in a certain way about relationships and the struggles that could come with them in such a powerful way, maybe, it can accomplish this for others who are trying to cope with their own heartbreak or figure out where to move forward from a romance or bond that went sideways. It’s just that thoughtful of a movie.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a wonderful, strange, surreal, dark, and completely sincere film that understands both the pain of love and the wounds that come with it. For all of the millions of times that love is sung about on the radio or discussed and often seen as this amazing, life-changing thing (And, it truly can be.), I have the utmost respect towards this movie for being gutsy and true enough to voice that it can also be an incredibly complicated experience as well, and trying to figure out what the best action to take, following a huge heartbreak or down spiral of a strong bond, is rarely going to involve any easy answers. This movie and its arthouse approach may admittedly not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in my eyes, there’s so much that it has to say about some very sensitive topics that it deserves to be given the viewing, especially for those who either want a different type of love story or something that looks at love and relationships through a point of view that is not choosing a side but trying to understand both the passion and frustration of it all.
“Eternal Sunshine” knows all too well about the humor, uplifting joy, selfless gifts, honesty, dedication, and passion that goes into love, and it, just as easily, understands how that can make it even more painful when something happens that causes both people from that love to search hard for answers or solutions to their own pain and mend the loss of that other person that meant so much to them, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Everyone from the actors to the director to the surreal atmosphere do a phenomenal job in helping to tell this story and echo these truths in thoughtful and unique ways. It’s one of the best movies of the 2000’s, and it perfectly narrows down to the truth that love isn’t something that you can try to merely erase or turn into a mathematical or logical study. Love is part of what makes you human. It’s part of what makes you feel as strongly as you do and sometimes inspire you and make you do things that you never previously thought or anticipated that you’d do for better or worse. Love is something that we’re never alone in feeling its wonder and agony from. It’s about what rings true to us in our hearts through what we feel and experience, and it’s gutsy enough to express that no relationship is perfect and that many of us are trying to find a way to heal when love goes in a direction that we didn’t expect for better or for worse.