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The Greatest Films of All Time: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

June 7, 2018

Let me heap some praise on one of the greatest films every made.  Yes it's been praised.   Yes it was nominated for awards (won Academy Award for best screenplay--duh.  Was not nominated for best film--a tragedy).

 

 Jim Carrey's finest performance to date.

 

The Story

 

Two strangers on the beach.

 

Meet Joel, a sad introverted loser who flakes out on work one day to catch a train to Montauk to walk on the winter beach and poke sticks in the stand.  While there he sees a girl with bright blue hair who appears to be doing the exact same thing as him.  He turns his back on her and chides himself for being too cowardice to introduce himself to a woman.  Joel and the blue-haired girl end up at the same diner (separately) where they see each other again, only to share a minimal gesture of recognition while she pours rum into her coffee.  Next he's on the train home, reflecting on the failure of his life all while sketching the blue-haired girl who is now sitting a few rows ahead of him on the train.  Finally the girl gets up the courage to make an introduction.  She says her name is Clementine and asks him not to make the same joke everyone else makes.  Joel is confused.  She says, "You know the song, 'ol my darlin Clementine.'  Joel says he's never heard that song (which is this guy born under a rock?).  Joel offers Clementine a ride home, which she quickly accepts and then asks him to come upstairs for a drink. They're hitting it off.  They go for a walk on the ice and look at the stars and stay up all night.  Clementine asks if she can stay at his place and runs upstairs to her apartment to grab a toothbrush.

 

While waiting for Clementine to return a man knocks on Joel's window.

 

"Can I help you?" the man asks Joel, who's sitting patiently in the driver's seat of his car.

 

"Excuse me?" Joel asks, confused.

 

"Why are you here?" the man (played by Frodo) asks and then walks away.

 

HARD CUT:

 

Joel is sobbing in his car at what appears to be a later date and we're not sure why.  Something has gone horribly wrong and we can't help but think it has something to do with Clementine.

 

Later Joel is telling his friends how he ran into Clementine and she acted like she'd never met him.  And there was this guy with her, this young guy.  

 

* SPOILER WARNING *

 

It turns out, the impulsive Clementine has employed the services of a company called Lacuna which offers a cutting edge service where they can erase people, places, and things from your memory (at your request).  

 

Clementine has erased Joel from her memory.

 

Unable to go on with the sadness that Clementine no longer remembers him, Joel decides he'd like to have the procedure done as well.  

 

The rest of the film we are inside the surreal wonderscape of Joel's head as Lacuna, Inc erases memories, faces, and yes, Clementine, from his head.  Joel is forced to experience each moment (starting with the most recent, the breakup) with Clementine and then, as if God has shut off the lights, the scene fades to black and Joel is transported to the previous memory and the one before that, until he's back to the day they met.

 

That's the general flow of the story, now I'll dissect why I think this film is so brilliant.

 

Idea #1: Erasing to Remember

 

The first reason this film is brilliant is since Joel's memories of he and Clementine are erased in reverse, we see their relationship *GET BETTER* as the memories shift.  Joel is reminded of how much he loves Clementine, and the things that broke them up now seem stupid and blown of out of proportion.  Joel is fully conscious as he's re-experiencing these memories and he and Clementine are able to both re-live the moment, and discuss the tragedy of what is happening as each memory fades to oblivion.

 

Idea #2: Joel's Regret

 

One of the most powerful moments in the film for me is when they're on the beach and the darkness is threatening to still another of Joel's beloved memories of Clementine.  They try and hide her away so he can keep a little something of her.  He doesn't want to lose her.  He regrets why he signed up for this procedure in the first place, but at this point his body is unconscious and he can't communicate with the technicians to stop.

 

The abandoned snow-covered house could not protect her.

 

Idea #3: Clementine as the Damsel in Distress

 

 But Clementine, YOU did this

 

Clementine, although in truth it's just Joel's projection of her in his mind, also doesn't want to lose her memories of their relationship.  She apologizes for erasing him, saying she's impulsive and was hurt.  Joel knows, that on some level, this was his fault.  There's an impending doom as we know that Joel cannot save his memories of Clementine.

 

Idea #4: That opening scene (the ending)

 

At the end of the film we are back at the opening scene.  Joel the lonely loser, walking on the beach.  Seeing that girl with the blue hair.  That miserable girl who kept prodding him, who threw herself at him.  They are two lost souls. 

 

Even without their memories they are, by cosmic forces, meant to find each other again (for the first time).

 

The brilliance of Charlie Kaufman

 

Yes Michel Gondry's direction was superb.  The surreal destruction of the world around him absolutely tears up the screen.  Cars are falling from the sky.  Joel's brain is being fried like an egg and we share in his frightened reality.  

 

But the ideas and methods employed by Kaufman to tell the story of love, loss, and reconciliation are played with the originality of virtuoso.  Kaufman is Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire while the rest of the world is singing The Monkees.  If you're not familiar with Charlie Kaufman's work, his other credits include other surreal masterpieces such as Being John MalcovichAdaptation and the peculiar Anomolisa.  

 

Why this film matters

 

In an age of soft reboots, callbacks, and stupid throwaway jokes, ESotSM employs unique story telling to tell a tragic tale that will haunt and provoke you.  It's a near perfect movie, with engaging visuals, sinister ideas, and a beating heart led by epic performances from Carrey and Winslet.  

 

If you haven't seen this film, I envy you that you might get to see it for the first time.

 

 

 

 

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