What if you received a card in the mail stating that you had been erased from your lover’s memory and that you should under no circumstance attempt to contact her?
Written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Michel Gondry and starring an eclectic cast including Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkinson, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (Focus Features) asks just this. Joel (Carrey) comes home one day to discover that his girlfriend, Clementine (Winslet), has erased her memory of him after a fight they had. In an act of retaliation, Joel decides to undergo the same procedure Clementine endured, only to realize halfway through that ,despite all the bad, the good is worth remembering.
With Kaufman’s quirky trademarks and Gondry’s stunning visual style, “Eternal Sunshine” is the tale of Joel trying to escape the procedure in his mind as his memories of Clementine vanish beautifully yet tragically right before viewers’ eyes.
In a recent Hatchet interview, Carrey, Winslet, Gondry and Ruffalo described the strange but true process Gondry undertook to make the film, along with the astonishing final product it created.
The idea of memory and identity being inextricably tied together plays a subtle yet strong role in this film. As Gondry said, “The closest thing we have to a soul is our memory. I think memory is preserved by the emotion you feel at the moment an event occurs. So it is in the communication of memories and emotion that define our identities.”
From this idea, Kaufman and Gondry explore the psychology of relationships by unraveling the love story of Joel and Clementine nonlinearly.
“What happens when you get dumped or dump someone else is that you use all the bad memories to make it seem like you’re making the right decision and block out all the good memories,” Gondry said. “That’s why we came up with the idea to (make the film go) backwards. The only reason we went backwards was to reveal this order of trying to protect identity by remembering the bad memories to ease the pain, but eventually showing the good memories resurfacing, allowing the pain to grow back again.”
Essentially, this is a love story, but one told from the inside out, allowing the film to “be romantic and yet not romanticized,” Carrey said. Watching the events unfold as they do places the viewer in a constantly shifting position. Much like the characters themselves, viewers are at first unaffected by the thought of forgetting this bad relationship, but regret over the lost memories soon sinks in.
“I think, for all of us, the relationship between Joel and Clementine is very real, that in no way is it possible for you to live in a relationship as if it were the first day you met,” Winslet said. “And I personally love that about this story, that whilst this film is told in this crazy, unorthodox way, it really is a very simple love story about two people who really are meant to be together despite this horrendous thing that they do.”
Early on in the film, viewers are lead to assume a contemporary science fiction reality reminiscent of a Philip K. Dick novel. Here, the procedure invented and implemented can efficiently target and erase memories an individual no longer wishes to possess. Interestingly, such a fantastic idea is not presented as one might think. Unlike the typically sterile representations of futuristic standards, the office of Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistants, Stan (Ruffalo), Mary (Dunst) and Patrick (Wood), is no more complicated than that of a local dentist’s office.
Ironically, the assimilation of the real and the unreal is done in such an unassuming manner that one cannot help but automatically assume its immediate validity in present time. By avoiding any outlandish futuristic designs, an obviously fictional idea easily meshes with reality; to this effect, getting one’s memories erased is seen as no stranger than going to that local dentist’s office for a check up.
Hatchet: If it were possible to just erase memories like this, what memories would you erase?
Jim Carrey: Well, part of the second-to-last night of shooting I would probably erase …
Michel Gondry: You mean the one where you were really nasty to me?
Jim Carrey: No, I mean the night you were a passive aggressive genius and made me be nasty to you. (laughter) It was a real wild night – everyone was real tired and Kate was fainting in the hot tub …
H: You had a hot tub on set?
Jim Carrey: Yes we did.
Kate Winslet: No, no, no! It was a sink, the scene with the sink! We can’t have him thinking we had a luxurious time making this movie!
Mark Ruffalo: Because we didn’t! Did we?! (all shout “No!”)
Although the outlandish events on screen are accepted without question now, working on the film with Gondry’s seemingly eccentric techniques produced another reaction altogether. Even the most experienced stars on set were surprised by Gondry’s entirely unfamiliar and unorthodox filmmaking style.
“At one point (Gondry) didn’t even want to say ‘action,'” Carrey said. “He just wanted to completely rewrite the whole rule book.”
With such a standard staple of filmmaking eliminated, confusion on set was common. Winslet recalled that she “would suddenly just have to stop talking in (her) English accent and immediately switch over into the American one just in case (Gondry) was trying to grab something.”
But the confusion didn’t end there.
Kate Winslet: I remember (in one scene Mark) was put in the cupboard. (You’d) drop props and files every time Jim would have to go past that door. And I swear I would just piss myself laughing because you (Ruffalo) were in there being completely ridiculous. I was just so close to ruining the whole thing just wetting myself laughing.
Mark Ruffalo: Yeah, (Gondry) brought me in and put me in a closet .. and then he never let me come out. So we shot the entire scene with me in the closet … and that was my part in it.
Jim Carrey: (with French accent) Hey you over zare! Get in zee closet!
Confusion aside, the madness that appeared to be inherent to every take had its purpose.
“I like to create a little confusion, a little panic, and then shoot the scene” Gondry said, defending his techniques. “I’d say, ‘OK,. let’s go now’ so that most actors wouldn’t be ready for it. I think it’s good to shoot like this so that the actor’s habits are lost. They don’t have the opportunity to think too much, they just become functional. I prefer this. They just don’t have the time to worry about what they want people to think they are; they just are.”
Aside from warping traditional acting methods, Gondry made a point to bend the rules of physics as Joel’s memories vanished. In one scene, Joel suddenly appears in two places at once; in many others the background suddenly begins to lose focus and decay. But while CGI would have found many places to call home in this picture, Gondry opted to avoid it at all costs, placing much of the special effects burden on the actors themselves.
Jim Carrey: I argued with Michel a couple of times, telling him I didn’t think I could accomplish certain things – like the scene in the office and in two different places in the same time and he had me running around the camera … I had to – in the dark, with the dresser, behind this hand-held camera while it was switching back and forth – run back and forth taking this trench coat off and putting this hat on really fast while changing my attitude. I just didn’t think it was possible. The scenes where the background is just decaying – when you’re shooting this scene there’s just a bunch of guys with a frame and piece of plastic stretched out behind me walking down the street … If you’re on set watching this you’re going, ‘This is clunky, man!’ I would argue with Michel and he would just be like (in French accent), ‘Well, uh why don’t ju try-uh?’ … This is why the French discovered the hot air balloon.
The difficulty of understanding Gondry’s intents during filming can be attributed to the abstract ideas and techniques that necessarily followed in order to realize them; then again, it could also be a result of the fact that Gondry is just incredibly French. This was most clearly demonstrated when he made the analogy of his directing methods being very similar to how one ought to make crepes. Incomprehensible analogies aside, the finished product of the film, as both Carrey and Winslet attest, “just works.”
What Gondry has accomplished with “Eternal Sunshine” is something to be admired. Between transforming actors into characters no one thought they could play and putting forth an absolutely stunning visual style, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is worth the trip to the theater, especially considering the trip the film itself took to get there.