Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Compromise. It's a difficult action to write about, since it involves the regression and sublimation of a part in an effort to improve the whole. The most mature love stories have often focused on the need for compromise, or at least the need for some balance of power in the relationship so that the struggle doesn't tip the scales too far in one direction. With his fine reflexive script Adaptation
, Charlie Kaufman explored the other connotation of compromise -- the negative one we associate with backing down: compromising our artistic values and our moral principles. With Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, his best work to date -- and luckily the best film made from one of his scripts as well -- he has made that mature love story which deals with that positive form of compromise; the one that involves accepting defeat, living with pain, and sacrificing something of yourself in order to make the best of a connection to someone else.
Kaufman's worlds are rarely realistic, and this one is no different; yet its characters seem to exist in a far more natural state than the clever constructs of his previous scripts. Whether his minds are dangerous, confessional, schizophrenic and split, or merely clouded by celebrity, Kaufman's protagonists have never been as touching as Joel Barish, played by a worn-looking Jim Carrey in what is easily the best thing he's ever done. In Joel's mind, Kaufman finds a place to make a poignant statement about memories and yearning, and about the benefits of experience over purity. Joel discovers a Vanilla Sky
-esque doctor's office that will erase from your mind all traces of a person so you can start fresh and avoid painful histories. But what if you find out that painful memories are also all that you have of some small ephemeral happiness you once felt; if the lingering ugliness of time and routine aren't filthy enough to blot out the joy of the best things you've done? Indeed, what good is having no sense of loss if you have no sense of love?
To these ideas, Kaufman adds an explicitly Nietzschean theme of repeated cycles. Our nature and our fixed identity will cause us to behave the same way, and any other artificial recreation of that behavior will only feel unnatural and synthetic. Nietzsche's famous idea of the "eternal recurrence of the same" hasn't been visualized so acutely since Kubrick's 2001
, even if the eternity of the title comes from an Alexander Pope poem. What Joel uncovers about himself is that given the opportunity to be re-born and live a fresh life, he will follow a similar path regardless, and must then confront an existential crisis of knowing the end of a romance before he enjoys the beginning. If this is possible, how would that change our approach to the romance? Kaufman leaves it up to us to answer.
Spike Jonze has handled Kaufman material before with understated skill and character-based comedy that centered on storytelling before style. Michel Gondry directed Kaufman's quirky and slightly underrated Human Nature
, but nothing in that film or his impressive music videos indicated he would be as brilliant as he is here. Gondry's control of cinematic language is immense; his camera and special effects crew barrel and tear through the celluloid with the kind of zeal usually reserved for 30-second commercials. Gondry manages to extend his enthusiasm for a middle section that lasts over an hour -- in fact, the structure of this film is so bizarre that because of its brief prologue, brief epilogue, and incredibly intense and thorough central sequence, it feels like the film is over before we barely get settled in our chairs.
As Gondry puts the finishing touches on Joel's mind-trip, we begin to see where it's all coming together and how to put the pieces we've observed into a coherent whole. He's a smart enough filmmaker to almost totally ignore exposition and let the images shout the message from rooftops. By the time Joel is frantically attempting to insert the woman who dumped him into every corner of his recessed childhood memories, the emotional impact of the necessity to recall details is enough to make the viewer burst into tears. And if you never thought the words "lost and gone forever" in the song "My Darlin' Clementine" could break your heart, you haven't seen this film.
While Carrey is surprisingly wonderful as Joel (I've never been overly impressed with either his comic or dramatic acting, but here he tones down his physical abilities in order to convey the weight of a life re-examined), Kate Winslet as Clementine explodes with an energy matched only in Holy Smoke
and her astounding debut, Heavenly Creatures
. Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo also excel in their smaller roles, especially Dunst in another complicated part for a girl coming of age and trying to reconcile her desires with her fears. At times Ruffalo and Dunst are given too much stoner humor by Kaufman's spontaneous dialogue, and Wood's motivations come close to the contrivances that marked Being John Malkovich
's machinery. But there is so much passion and intelligence in this blazingly original film that any false notes will fall on deaf ears already ringing from the melodious beauty of Gondry's camerawork (aided by delirious inspiration from Spike Lee vet DP Ellen Kuras) and Kaufman's writing. When this film confronts us with the question of how to live with the knowledge of the past and the knowledge of the future, it's an absolute thrill to re-discover the perfection of that fleeting present which knows no pain, no loss, and -- for a moment -- no compromise.
[Note: a second viewing has lessened some of my small problems with the film, which has just grown in brilliance as I've spent time thinking about it and seeing it again to get a better read on the structure -- which marvelously maps out a relationship in reverse and culminates in a powerful scene that reduces a lifetime's worth of love into one night, making Gondry's masterpiece the most emotionally touching movie I've seen in years; this is one for the books, folks]