100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 92: ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

by Daniel Suddes

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind –  Director: Michael Gondry    Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman  Starring:  Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo  OSCAR COUNT (1) – Winner of Best Original Screenplay

“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” – Stanley Kubrick

Kubrick’s belief has only recently become a reality. And even then, it took several years for truly philosophical films about the way the mind works to find any sort of emotional center. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did it. It was the most original film of the last decade, and one that is already being used as the source of inspiration for newer films.

How else would Inception exist without Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

Everyone has had the desires that Lacuna fulfills – to eliminate a bad memory for our conscious. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes the procedure after finding that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) breaks up with him and then erases the memory of their relationship from his mind. Audiences then see their relationship in reverse – as does Barish, who realizes that the time he had with Clementine was still important.

Now, the most important part of the film is not the script (there have been many films that explore relationships…that part is nothing new) but how the story is told. There is a rough sense of chronological order, but it is almost impossible to remember what comes next – or what came before it. The film depends on visually striking moments (as when the world slowly goes dark as the memories disappear, certain moments literally drift apart) that make the experience believable. That is what makes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind unique. The film is not trying to engage in a lecture about memory (although that does come into play). It is trying to establish a relationship between people and their memories, allowing people to engage with the film at their own leisure.

By the end, the film is all about how we feel. That is, also, what makes memories more important to in the first place. Before Eternal Sunshine, any film that wanted to discuss memories and identity ended up becoming rather cold and sterile (as, say Vanilla Sky demonstrated). There are some who will defend this approach (was it Goddard who said that emotions in film are impossible as “you can’t kiss a film?”) but director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann found a way to give this film an emotional core. Perhaps that is the reason that I declare this one of the greatest films of all time.

Of course, so much is dependent on the performances. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have never been better. Both come across as world weary, but intelligent. Yet the standout is Winslet. She is a rather striking figure – in many ways, she is an invention of Joel’s psyche, as though there would be no other woman that he could end up with. I believe this film created the archetype of the free spirited woman that comes to rescue a man from his weariness. At the very least, it popularized it. It takes a special performer to create such a role that everyone strives for but no one can master.

The best scene, for me, will always be the one in which Joel takes Clementine to an earlier childhood memory. Clementine takes the place of a caretaker, whilst Joel reverts to his four year old self. Using every technical trick in the book to make the scene believable (forced perspective is used to make Jim Carrey appear half the size of Kate Winslet), it also offers a bit of whimsy to what had been a series of serious moments. Besides, as does the rest of the film, it opens a “can of metaphysical worms.” Did Joel fall in love with Clementine because she reminded him of this moment in childhood? Is that memory still present? The entire film is filled with moments that become more thought provoking the more times you view it, but work wonderfully on the surface to engage everybody.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ended up topping quite a few “best of the decade lists” last year. Maybe that is a sign that the film will only grow in stature as time progresses. I certainly hope that is the case – it stands as a testament to the power of memory and the sense of warmth that human beings give even their most dreaded experiences.

 Did you know?  The memory-erasing company, Lacuna Inc., takes its name from the Latin word meaning a   cavity, hollow, or dip, especially a pool or pond. Considering the tasks they perform, this name makes perfect sense.

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