Taking a Look into the Spotless Mind
A Film Review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Christopher Wostenberg
I remember when I first started dating my wife back in graduate school and we watched our favorite romantic movies with each other. She chose to have us watch High Fidelity, a movie I had seen already but enjoyed re-watching with her. I chose Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Interestedly, both deal with what happens after a breakup and how couples rebound. Fortunately, we never broke up. Both of the films still resonant with me personally, mainly because she and I shared them together. At a later date, I might discuss High Fidelity, but for now I have chosen to look at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as it deals with the question I get asked quite a bit as an advisor and mentor, “Is there something in your past that you would change?” To be clear up front and not leave anyone in suspense throughout the review, the answer is “No.” The reason is because the past, good and bad, has shaped the person I am now. With that stated, on with the review.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s main story is about the relationship between Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski. After they break up, Joel learns that Clementine has utilized the services of Lacuna, Inc. to have Joel erased from her memory. In response, Joel decides to have the procedure done as well. Most the movie takes place in Joel’s mind as Clementine is being erased from it over the course of one night while Joel is sleeping. During the process, Joel has second thoughts about the procedure and tries to preserve the memory of Clementine. A minor storyline involves the workers of Lacuna, Inc. and their personal connections with Joel, Clementine and the mind erasing procedure.
Initially, this review was supposed to come out in February with the theme of love, and as such I would have discussed the how the film portrays fate versus free will in the area of love. This theme is greatly spread out in the major storyline of Joel and Clementine as well as in the minor subplot with the Lacuna, Inc. employees. Instead, this review will focus on how the movie artistically depicts the mind in a dreamlike way.
As I mentioned in the synopsis of the film, most of the movie takes place in Joel’s mind as Clementine is slowly being erased. This leads to a surreal quality in the scenes. (If you are unfamiliar with surreal artistry, then look at the works of Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Frida Kahlo.) Out of necessity, the storytelling relies on the surreal nature of dreams and memories. Without it, the film falls apart as it would not make sense that Joel could talk and interact with his memories of Clementine. While events of the past are concrete, factual elements, the memory of the events are not. Memories can change. Memories can be altered. Memories can be false. The film represents this by personifying Joel’s memories into a character in the representation of Clementine so the audience can understand the relationship. This is most evident in the first night Joel and Clementine are together in the empty house on the beach. Joel originally had left the house, leaving Clementine alone because he was afraid. But as the memory of the event is being erased, he is allowed to stay and to imagine what might have happened. Slowly the house, and likewise the memory, fall apart piece by piece.
Other examples of the surreal nature of memories are in Joel’s ability to bring Clementine into memories she originally was not a part of. Joel is able to bring Clementine into his childhood, long before he ever met her. These shifts between Joel as an adult and Joel as a child occur through camera cuts and forced perspective. This is very reminiscent of dreams one has as an adult about a childhood event. In the dream, you might appear as you are now, and then switch to how you were as child. This dreamlike quality in the scenes remind the audience that the scenes are taking place inside of Joel’s mind and cannot be taken as factual events. Thus the audience is biased toward Joel’s perception and thoughts within these scenes. In a fact, the audience relates to his struggle to retain the memories of a loved one.
The filmmakers depict the surreal in big ways like the house falling apart and switching between adult and childhood Joel, but they also do it more subtly in the beginning scenes. Some of the aspects are so minor they are missed on first viewing. One example is in the bookstore when Joel is asking Clementine out. At first glance, it looks like a normal bookstore. But as the scene progresses, the titles and coloring on the spines of the books slowly disappear. This foreshadows the slow removal of the memory as minor facts disappear first. In the final shot, Joel is alone in the bookstore surrounded by shelves of white, blank books. These subtle aspects make the movie fun to re-watch. With that said, I end there to avoid spoiling too much of the experience of the movie for first time viewers.
Before ending my review, I also want to mention how the film purposely chose to minimize the CGI, while utilizing older film techniques like in-camera effects, spotlighting, split focus and editing to tell the story. Such decisions, I think, lead to a natural quality to the surreal aspect of the mind being portrayed in the film. Additionally, they make the movie stand apart from other films of the time.
Favorite Scene: From a technical standpoint, this film has many interesting scenes to love and dissect as a favorite scene. But instead of choosing a technical scene, I have chosen a brief but very emotional scene as my favorite. In this scene, Joel is trying to hide Clementine in a buried memory from his childhood. The memory is one where Joel is peer-pressured, by four friends/bullies, into striking what appears to be an injured or dead bird with a hammer. The scene uses technical forced perspective camera work as it switches between childhood and adult Joel that are worth mentioning. But the technical aside, the scene works on an emotional level as it shows a scene I think we can all relate to: one in which we are forced to do something that we immediately regret and try to forget. In fact, it is stated right before the scene actually occurs that the memory will be one that is deeply buried. Without showing the brutal nature of the act itself, I as an audience member am made uncomfortable and embarrassed, much like Joel because I empathize with him experiencing the event. Luckily for the audience, the mood quickly changes back to one of joy and love as young Clementine and young Joel play together, far removed from the other children.
In this scene, one of the main themes of the movie is depicted and that is with anything there is a negative and a positive. Joel has buried the traumatic experience, but in the process has also forgotten the joy that come out of it, which was playing with a childhood sweetheart. In the movie, Joel realizes the same thing with his relationship with Clementine. Yes, there were bad times and they fought, which led to them breaking up. But he had some of the best times of his life with Clementine. Ultimately, the great moments with Clementine are what make Joel want to call off the procedure and remember the good times with the bad times.
Hopefully, I have piqued your interest a little bit about this great film from the beginning of the 21st century. Additionally, after seeing it, you will not want to have it erased from your mind by Lacuna, Inc. As I always say, go out and see the film, so we can have a two-way discussion on this piece of art instead of letting me or anyone else bias your opinion too much.
Staying with a French director but changing gears from a romantic science fiction comedy-drama to a dark comedy murder mystery musical, I will be looking at the 2002 French language film 8 Women. As usual, I leave you with a movie quote. This time it comes from Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon “Don’t think! FEEL. It is like the finger pointing a way to the moon … Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
Hyperlinks for online reviews of the film discussing some of the techniques in making the film