“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d”
– Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard
“I can’t remember anything without you”
– Joel, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
“Meet me in Montauk”
– Clementine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) destroys me. Every. Time. If I could ever curate a week-long film festival, I’d probably schedule a “Sad-sack, flailing relationship films of the 2000s” program and Michel Gondry and Charlie Kauffman’s low-fi romantic masterpiece would be the main attraction. For those wondering, I would also schedule Blue Valentine (2010), Revolutionary Road (2008), Closer (2005), Take This Waltz (2011). Sure, it’d make for a horribly depressing festival, but god if all of these films aren’t chockfull of great female performances — Michelle and Kate really know their way around complicated and soured characters (I’m always tempted to add Little Children (2006) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) and just make it a full Williams/Winslet triptych but I’d lose that underrated gem that is Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Patrick Marber’s bitingly abrasive play, Closer with my favorite Natalie Portman performance).
But I digress. I’m here to offer my favorite shot from Gondry’s film, a feat I assumed would be harder than it turned out to be. The prologue to the film (fulfilling Clementine’s memory’s wish to meet her in Montauk) is a great introduction to our leads: Jim Carry as Joel (an introvert who’s more at home with his small journal than with small talk) and Kate Winslet as Clementine (who’s as sprightly and overpowering as her hair color). Together, they spend one of those great first dates that seem to extend themselves organically into the late night which they spend staring at constellations (“Osidius the Emphatic” which is “sort of a swoop and a cross”) in the now-frozen Charles river. Before they lay down to simply relish the moment Clementine falls and cracks the ice. Gondry makes sure we see this when he shoots the couple from above, giving us this shot:
It’s no surprise the marketing team honed in on this film for the film’s poster. This image, slightly off-kilter in more ways than one is a gorgeous and thematically resonant image that captures the beauty and darkness the film’s subject matter. As we learn, of course, Joel and Clementine have already met and had dated for over two years prior to this moment only they’d had their memories of one another removed. Being in a relationship with one another, much like walking on an icy frozen river, is as dangerous as it is thrilling, it may crumble under your own weight even as you try to skate over it. I love this moment for its simplicity (you can see Clementine and Joel utterly and blissfully happy, yet obviously unaware of what’s to come and what’s come before) and its humor (Carrey and Winslet’s chemistry is most effective in between bursts of laughter like the one that punctuates the film’s final scene).It’s also an image that gets repeated twice over. Indeed, much of the film works like a fun house of memories, with Joel roving through his time with Clementine, at times re-visiting memories before they vanish by night’s end.
The scene that opens the film, as we learn, is at the tail-end of the film’s plot, already a recreation of an earlier trip to the Charles River. It is during that memory that Joel finally realizes the folly of his decision to erase Clementine and it is the moment when the plot quickens its pace as the people from Lacuna Inc. spend the rest of the night hunting down Joel in the remotest parts of his memory (the shameful, repressed moments Joel has spent a lifetime burying). The scene at the Charles river, which becomes for viewers a copy, is in fact the original for Joel. “I’m just… happy” Joel intones, and much like the earlier shot had the lighting match Clementine’s hair, we here get a rosier version of the shot at the Charles river; this is, after all, a memory reconstructed from his increasing desire to keep Clementine in his life. But if this is the rose-colored glasses version of this memory, we are reminded of what’s going on as this is quickly followed by the ever-growing darkness that will envelop Clementine and Joel alike. (Gondry and Ellen Kuras’ work with mere flashlights and pools of light is one of the many triumphs of the film’s tactile aesthetic approach to memory).
Immediately after we get the third rendition of the Charles river frame, except this time it is Patrick (Elijah Wood) with Clementine. If the first image captures what works between Joel and Clementine and the second offers us both copy and template of that moment, here we see it as pure photocopy. Patrick, while borrowing words from Joel’s journal cannot help but an inexact replica of what Clementine knows this moment to be; precisely what she’s now forgot but will soon reenact with Joel just the following day. No wonder Gondry clouds them in unforgiving shadows; where Joel and Clementine are framed by the ice, Patrick and Clementine are mere lumps in this now thrice-repeated scene. one which is obviously starting to wear thin. From this moment onwards, the film is a race; will Joel elude Lacuna Inc’s prying eyes and hide his treasured Clementine even as she continues to evaporate right in front of him?
In fact, barring that shot from above, this is my favorite moment in the film, I can’t help but reach my arms out to the screen to keep Winslet from leaving me… I mean Joel. It really is her strongest performance, so perfectly calibrated to the various things the screenplay requires of her; she’s shrill, entertaining, “nice,” unsexily drunk, dangerously poisonous, fascinating, but ultimately she’s endlessly alluring even as she’s unravelling right before our very eyes. Winslet’s eyes in those framing scenes clearly hint at the darkness we know consumes her, but it is her laughter — through tears! — that sells that beautiful and heartbreaking last moment where, in spite of everything we’ve just witnessed, Joel and Clementine agree to plow ahead. “Blessed are the forgetful,” indeed, “for they get the better even of their blunders.”