Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The tenth anniversary of its release seems an appropriate moment to celebrate the existence of this Charlie Kaufman-Michel Gondry collaboration, a film that arguably increases in stature as time goes by, and to emphasize once again that yes: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romantic comedy.
The movie is also a sci-fi fantasy drama, but it's motored by the central question of "Will these two become a couple (again)?" and it's blacky comedic in tone, with a quasi-happy ending, so in my book - literally - it qualifies: call it a rom-com hybrid if you'd like to get technical. And for those of us who like our romantic comedies substantive, emotionally powerful, unique in story concept, and inspired in execution, it doesn't get much better than this.
When I'm asked what my favorite rom-coms of the new century are thus far, ESOTSM invariably comes to mind. In the years since its release, the only rom-com that's seemed to me to be as insightfully zeitgeisty is Spike Jonze's Her (also a hybrid), and one can't help thinking that Jonze might not have gotten to Her without his first having been so intimately involved with Sunshine's creator.
Regardless, a lot of the raw pull in ESOTSM lies in its fanciful and beautifully realized grappling with a universal idea: Who among us has not, at some point in our romantic history, wished we could simply erase a painful relationship from our memory? Where Kaufman, Gondry and stars Carrey and Winslet take this premise is marvelously startling. The film is that rare achievement of an imaginative concept developed even more inventively than one might expect, which is one reason why it holds up so well on repeated viewings.
Like any great work of art, Sunshine continues to matter, transcending genre, rich with nuanced meaning and alive with deeply felt emotion. Due to its dazzlingly complex structure and the crazed poetry of its impossible-made-real imagery, there's always more to see in it. And it does one thing that's rare for the rom-com turf: it allows room for ugliness, messiness, twisted edges that can't be unbent.
Kate Winslet's Clementine is equal parts beautiful and horrible; Jim Carrey's Joel has issues that won't quit. For once, both lovers in love aren't good at it. They share responsibility for their perhaps insoluble problems because they can't be other than who they are, as they struggle to keep their love for each other alive with an awkwardness and anger we recognize from real life.
Also accurate is the film's presentation of the byzantine ways in which memory and the mind work, replicating familiar processes of thought that - outside of say, Proust - are generally thought too subtle and convoluted to convey.
At one point, when Joel peers past the edges of his own consciousness, we see beyond what's lit into the dark recesses of a stage set, and it feels like glimpsing the fading memories of a dream. At another, the sensation of remodeling, losing the actual memory even as we attempt to grasp it is palpable when an adult Joel becomes his child self, both witness and participant to his memory dissolving, pulling his flailing body down a sink drain.
Joel runs down the maze-like corridors of his mind, holding onto the Clementine who really represents only his idealized, subjective projection of who she is. But when he emerges, he's willing, despite everything he knows about how badly it will most probably go with the real Clementine, to give their life together another chance.
About that ending: no sappy-happy ride off into the sunset, here. And I often quote the last lines of the movie in screenwriting classes as an example of how much great dialogue can pack into the simplest of mundane phrases. Right at the painful point of acknowledging how everything in their shared experiences indicates that their reunion may be destined to fail, Joel decides to take that risk. "Okay," he says. "Okay," Clementine responds. Those four syllables moved me to tears the first time I saw the film... as they have every time I've seen it since.
This 10th anniversary post from The Film Stage is chockful of delightful photos from ESOTSM's shoot. Many interesting links are available on the Wiki page. The Oscar-winning screenplay is available here. Interviews with Kaufman and a clip of his Oscar speech can be found on this site. And there's an interview with director Gondry here.
But really, the best celebration I can think of is to view the movie again, if you haven't seen it since its original run. Within all of Sunshine's trippiness and weirdosity lies a romantic relationship whose dark truths feel a lot closer to those lived in the modern world than what's usually seen in your average rom-com. And for that I'm eternally grateful.