From French director Michel Gondry, this 2004 romantic sci-fi film has cult classic status. And rightly so, as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an uncommonly unique film.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman delivered a masterclass here, helped along with brilliant performances by Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey. It’s… unforgettable!
Do You Want Those Happy Memories? Maybe Not, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind followed in the footsteps of several adventurous Hollywood scripts around this era.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is another example of an unconventional love story. That features an incredible performance by Adam Sandler.
There was also Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Memento (2000), which directly deals with memory loss and unconventional film structures.
Another was Being John Malkovich (1999), also by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. And you can see his exploration of love and obsession in peculiar circumstances play out in more advanced form here.
The plot concerns Joel Barish (Carrey), an introverted man who struggles with all things interpersonal.
However, one day Clementine Kruczynski (Winslet) approaches him on a train journey. She’s an impulsive extrovert with dyed blue hair, although the colour changes throughout the film quite sporadically.
The pair begin a two-year relationship.
Perfectly normal plot layout, right? Except! After the relationship falls apart, Clementine gets her memory wiped at a New York business called Lacuna.
This targets failed relationships to remove that painful memory, allowing patients to go about their lives free from psychological agony.
Joel only finds out about this when he randomly bumps into Clementine. She has no idea who he is.
After that revelation, a distraught Joel decides he also wants the procedure. As well, heading off to get his brain wiped specifically to remove that bit Clementine occupies.
What plays out after that is a twisting, mind-bending plot on the level of a Philip K. Dick style story (see Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
The sci-fi genius was obsessed with the nature of reality. And Kaufmann plays around with similar concepts across Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
And what’s unnerving about the film is it feels like a future we’re heading for. Maybe in 20 years we can all get our memories wiped for certain things we don’t want in there…
There’s also alcohol for that, of course. Just go on a bender! We jest. Chortle heartily, we’re only messing.
Anyway, the film ends in playful fashion. Joel and Clementine bump into each other again on a train. They’ve no idea who they are.
Yet, they decide to go on a date together… the whole process set to continue ad infinitum.
An imaginative film it is, then, and one to be celebrated for its creative heft and delivery of intriguing concepts. That’s helped massively by the brilliance of the lead actors, not least with Jim Carrey playing against type.
Full props to Carrey, who by 2004 had already branched out into more serious roles in The Truman Show (1998).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is very possibly his best ever performance. To think this is the same actor who played the wildly extroverted Ace Ventura in the mid-1990s is credit to his progress as a performer.
Even in Truman Show he was allowed moments on slapstick. But this was simply a naturalistic, cut-back portrayal of a shy man trying to find his way in life.
Winslet is also brilliant, we feel she doesn’t get enough credit for her overall excellence as a performer.
Considering it was only seven years after her role in James Cameron’s Titanic, after that she’d intentionally headed off towards smaller, independent productions.
But together, Carrey and Winslet sell you this peculiar love story. And it works a treat! A modern cult classic of sorts and one to remember as it heads for its 20th anniversary.
The Production of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Off its $20 million budget, the film went on to make back $74 million worldwide. It was also critically acclaimed and is now regarded as one of the best films from that decade.
Some critics have even hailed it as one of the best romance films… ever!
High praise indeed, which won Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Winslet was also nominated for Best Actress.
We feel the Academy was a bit priggish to ignore Carrey on this one.
Charlie Kaufman wrote the role of Joel Barish autobiographically. But he didn’t pick Carrey deliberately for the role.
Nic Cage was actually the director’s first choice, with Cage having been in recent impressive roles such as 8mm (1999) and Adaptation (2002), the latter being another Kaufman screenplay.
In the end, they got in Carrey as he was enthusiastic for the role.
But Kaufman didn’t want him messing around and being silly.
To control that side, he put a halt on the actor’s habit for mischievous improvisation. Carrey objected about that at first, but the rule stuck.
Kaufman also used little tricks to catch Carrey off guard, such as providing misleading orders and beginning shooting unexpectedly.
Winslet, meanwhile, bagged the role as she actually criticised Kaufman’s script with constructive feedback. Whereas everyone also fawned sycophantically over it.
For the role, she didn’t dye her hair relentlessly—she wore wigs every time Clementine updated her hair colour (a lot, during the film).
Shooting began in January 2003 and lasted for three months. It was shot in New York City, with other locations including Montauk train station in Long Island.
Other shots were filmed in Montauk, which has various beaches. These were used for some of the film’s iconic scenes there (such as Joel and Clementine waking up in a bed with full surf in action).
It was a tough shoot, with regular 17 hour days for the crew. Again indicating the dedication required to work in the film industry.
But the results were worth it, with a film that now has a big cult following. And we can only think its status will grow with each passing year.