Jarv’s Best of 2000-2009. Number 6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a difficult film to review. To begin with, it’s hard to pin down precisely what genre it falls under. It’s comic, there are science-fiction elements, a dash of romance, but it’s almost impossible to say where it should be. If I was a clerk at Blockbusters, then I’d add placing Eternal Sunshine in the aisles to my list of reasons for suicide.
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most complicated film to review on this top 10 list. The Descent hinted at ambiguity, Daisy deliberately mixed up the narrative order for a different point of view, and WALL-E and Tsotsi followed a straightforward linear chronological narrative. Eternal Sunshine is a torturous labyrinth. It hops around chronologically (we meet the characters in what could arguably be said to be the last third of the film), a huge amount of it takes place inside Joel’s head, and there are other intermittent interludes with the supporting cast. I could reduce it to a chronology, but that would be cheating, and half the pleasure of the film comes from allowing it to unfold in its own way.
So, therefore, I’m not going to distil the plot in this review. Instead, I’m going to briefly summarise why I think that this film is one of the best of the decade. Most of the films I’ve picked have, through sheer coincidence, been centred in human but not necessarily romantic relationships. Eternal Sunshine is based on the premise “what if you could erase the memory of a failed relationship?”. It charts this process, albeit in an ostensibly random (even if it is nothing of the sort) fashion, of one man’s deletion. All the action does, in theory, take place over 24 hours, but as we are delving through Joel’s memories, the timescale is significantly longer than that.
When we are first introduced to Joel he has had an irresistable urge to take the day off work. He meets a suspiciously dyed woman called Clementine, and they hit it off. However, there’s a nagging sense of Deja-vu at work with them. The film then starts jumping back and forth between Lacuna Inc (the memory erasing company), the night of the erasing, Joel’s memories, and the present. However, despite this, it never feels confusing. Rather each element unfolds naturally and each moment adds to our empathy with the character. He’s a sad sack, to be sure, and he’s sort of pathetic, but most of these moments add to our understanding of how he came to be such a sad sack.
Jim Carrey is ordinarily an actor that annoys me intensely. However, I saw the Truman Show and thought he was absolutely outstanding. This film confirms that when he isn’t mugging and gurning like a 9 year old, he’s actually a good actor with decent range. It was a superb casting choice, all things considered, as his everyman looks fit the persona brilliantly, and when he tones down his acting, he is more than capable of adding real pathos to the character. Kate Winslet, an actress that stars in films that I invariably hate, is also superb in this- she acts as a great foil for Carrey, and if anything, Clementine is a more extrovert character than Joel. The other support includes Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo who are all good, with the exception of Wood, who is excellent as a creepy little stalker.
The writing from the consistently excellent Charlie Kaufman is top drawer. There are some superb exchanges between Joel and Clementine, the script is laced with great lines (“Technically what we’re doing is brain damage”) and the concluding scene with Joel listening to the tape he made describing the break up is legitimately heart-rending. Kaufman wants us to be in no doubt that we are the sum of our experiences, and to erase any memory, no matter how painful, is both futile and counterintuitive. Sure, it may be the easier option, but it diminishes us as people.
Michel Gondry may now be heading towards “disappointment” territory, what with having followed this jewel with the lackluster Science of Sleep and the frankly terrible Be Kind, Rewind, but this, his second film, is a majestic effort. It may be, a case of the right people being in the right place at the right time, but there are touches of visual flair that add to the experience rather than overwhelming it.
Overall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a superb film. It’s excellent on all critical levels, and so much more than the sum of its’ parts. Each individual contribution adds to the overall feel of the film, and although it may appear to be light and quirky it isn’t anything of the sort. It’s a philosophical film that poses questions on what makes us us, and supplies the answer that it believes is the correct one. I honestly cannot recommend this film enough.
Next up, Shane Meadows outstanding but depressing This is England.