Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 filmdirected by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman.
It centres on anestranged couple who have erased each other from their memories, then, starteddating again. The film’s use of nonlinear narrative provides another layer ofdepth to what in essence is a high-concept romantic-comedy. The plot of thefilm is unorthodox, with it’s opening scenes in fact taking place at the end ofthe film’s story. The audience is not made aware of this until the final act ofthe film, with the film’s plot showing us the relationship between Joel (JimCarrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) in reverse. This structure, while odd,helps the audience to initially understand why Joel and Clementine have decidedto erase each other from their respective memories, while eventually showing usthe happier earlier days from their relationship. This is coupled with the factthat the audience is viewing this from the perspective of Joel as he undergoesthe memory-wipe procedure – and his emotional journey of deciding that he doesn’twant to forget.The events of the films story follow three mainstrands – the Reality of Joel and Clementine’s relationship and subsequentbreak-up, Joel’s Mind and his recollections of these events as they are beingerased, and the Lacuna Erasers who are working on an unconscious Joel to erasehis memories.
The bulk of the film’s story takes place in Joel’s Mind, which isoccurring simultaneously with the Lacuna Erasers. This could be considered oneof Allan Cameron’s modular narratives – split-screen narrative. With two majorstrands of the film’s story happening at the same time, a significant portionof the narrative is split. This allows for interesting juxtaposition between Joel’semotionally charged memories of Clementine and the Eraser’s almost-casual approachto removing these memories. The film is book-ended by scenes which take place inReality, again in an unorthodox sense with both the opening and final scenes showingJoel and Clementine after Joel’s procedure has finished. By taking thisapproach with narrative, Gondry has achieved a greater level of audienceengagement as the audience must work to piece together the narrative of the filmas it is being presented to them.Another notable aspect of the film’s narrativeis how it presents its story in terms of time.
Gondry makes use of what Gerard Genettereferred to as anachrony – temporal disruptions in the narrative. Eternal Sunshine… (Gondry, 2004) has anarrative that for the most part takes place retrospectively – in that most ofthe events the audience are presented with have already happened and we aresimply seeing Joel’s recollection of these events as they are erased from hismemory. The term analepsis could be applied here by the definition of it asbeing “any evocation after the fact of anevent that took place earlier than the point in the story where we are at anygiven moment” (Dellal, 1973).
The main way in which this technique is usedis in the sub-plot where one of the Lacuna Erasers, Patrick (Elijah Wood), is usingJoel’s journal to romance Clementine with the same phrases and dates that madeher fall for Joel initially. This is exemplified when we see Joel and Clementineon a frozen lake together and Joel tells her how happy he is – then shortlyafter we see Patrick at the same lake with Clementine, awkwardly quoting Joel’sdeclaration of happiness at her. This evokes the audience’s response to thefirst frozen lake scene, and how it was a tender and romantic moment, andcontrasts it to the stilted interaction Patrick and Clementine have.
The effectof this all is to make the audience invested in the relationship between Joeland Clementine, and root for Joel in his attempts to derail the procedure frominside his own subconscious.One other aspect of thenarrative that is worth analysing is the level of difference between EternalSunshine and its contemporaries within the romance genre. Romance is a genrewhich has been popular since the golden age of Hollywood with films like Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953) andcontinues to be popular today in films such as The Notebook (Cassavetes, 2004). Whilst Eternal Sunshine is certainly a romance at its core, it defies severalnarrative conventions that are often expected of the genre in mainstreamcinema. For one, its plot does not begin with the central romantic pairingmeeting, getting to know each other and moving forward in chronological order –instead the film begins with them having recently broken up and eventuallyworking backwards from there.
This use of plot also means that the first theaudience see of Joel and Clementine as a couple is when they are at the end oftheir relationship – bitter and unhappy. Few mainstream films would introducetheir central couple at their most unlikeable and risk the audience souring onthem. However, by doing this Gondry makes his protagonists much more relatablethan most mainstream romances do – showing the unpleasant side of a relationshipdemonstrates that the film, while employing some high-concept sci-fi elements,has a commitment to emotional realism.Gondry does an effective job of communicatinginformation about his main characters – by the end of the first sequence of thefilm, the audience already knows the core characteristics of its protagonists. Joelis shown the be a shy and introspective man, an effective way in which this iscommunicated to the audience is through the use of first-person narration fromJoel.
Not only is the audience quickly made aware of key character information –Joel is unimpulsive, lonely, fed up with the monotony of his life – that thisinformation is being relayed by Joel essentially talking to himself addsanother layer of loneliness for the audience to pick up on. Clementine is also introducedhere, appearing to be meeting Joel for the first time. Her colourful appearanceand talkative nature immediately signpost her as being a near polar opposite toJoel.
The audience of mainstream romance films has been conditioned to expectthe main couple to usually have a meet-cute– a term used by the likes of film critic Roger Ebert (2004) to describe how manyromance films, such as When Harry MetSally (Reiner, 1989), will have their protagonists meet in unusual or cutecircumstances. However, this trope isupturned by the reveal later in the film that Joel and Clementine had been in along-term relationship prior to this meet-cute. The reverse-order nature of thenarrative means that as the film goes on the audience is revealed newinformation about why these characters were drawn to each other in the firstplace.The film’s unorthodoxnarrative structure is unlike most other mainstream romance films. This, againcomes down to Gondry and Kaufman’s plot decision to have the film begin with Joeland Clementine having recently broken up. This eschews the structure that most romancefilms follow – the couple meet, fall in love, break up or stay together. By openingthe film with the central couple broken up, Gondry had made the conscious decisionto strip the film of the tension that would usually come from a narrative thatfollows the usual will they, won’t theydynamic; the audience is told the fate of their relationship in the first act. Thismeans that Gondry must draw tension from another aspect of the film’s story,which he does by focusing on Joel’s emotional journey and his attempts to stophis own memory wiping procedure.
The effect of this is that the film now has anelement of the thriller genre in it’s high-concept and unique plot engagingwell with the audience.Joel is well utilised asa restricted narrator, his perspective provides the narrative with a clearfocus point; allowing the audience easily to recognise Joel as the protagonistand point-of-view character of the film. The narrative of the film isdistinctly shaped by Gondry’s decision to have Joel as the main character. Had hechosen Clementine, for instance, the film’s plot and structure would be verydifferent. Joel’s narration also evolved over the course of the film – startingoff as a reserved description of his actions and thoughts on the day that theaudience is first introduced to him, he begins to reflect more on his deeperfeelings and emotions the deeper he journeys into his own subconscious. Thisnarrative device has been effectively utilised by Gondry to illustrate Joel’sevolution as a character through the unorthodox means of having his memorywiped. It is also typical of EternalSunshine’s anti-cliché style that the central emotional journey of theprotagonist is almost totally undone in the end, as Joel’s memory issuccessfully wiped of Clementine. As previously mentioned, one of the main examplesof Gondry’s unorthodox approach to plot in Eternal Sunshine is that the film’sopening scenes in fact take place after the majority of the story’s events.
Althoughthere is the chance that the audience may figure this out before the filmreveals it, because of how these scenes are presented as Joel and Clementinemeeting for the first time and that we don’t see their actual first encounteruntil near the end. However, Gondry’s structuring and direction of Kaufman’sscript means that this reveal is not set up as a twist ending that supports theentire film, rather as a revelation that reframes the rest of the plot andgives those opening scenes a new significance and poignance. The ending ofEternal Sunshine, then, is the events that follow what the audience had assumedwas Joel and Clementine’s first meeting but now know was them being drawntogether despite having now memory of their relationship. The reflection of theopening increases its impact; Joel running to get a train to Montauk initiallyseemed like a bizarre impulse decision, now it is seen as him subconsciouslyremembering that Clementine told him to meet her there – his awkward sprint tothe train now has a substantially greater effect on the audience. Gondry’sdecision to have the ending of Eternal Sunshine reflect the opening so explicitlyresults in a narrative which has a powerful effect on the audience and imbuesthe opening scenes – part of a film which can often feel like necessary butdull scene-setting – with an added weight and emotion.To conclude, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isa tremendous example of how an inventive narrative can improve a film.
Gondryand Kaufman have used both of their considerable talents to craft a moving filmthat manages to avoid succumbing to genre clichés while remaining appealing toa mainstream audience. It is a towering achievement in modern filmmaking.