Eternal – and his emotional journey of deciding that

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 film
directed by Michel Gondry and written by Charlie Kaufman. It centres on an
estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories, then, started
dating again. The film’s use of nonlinear narrative provides another layer of
depth to what in essence is a high-concept romantic-comedy. The plot of the
film is unorthodox, with it’s opening scenes in fact taking place at the end of
the film’s story. The audience is not made aware of this until the final act of
the film, with the film’s plot showing us the relationship between Joel (Jim
Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) in reverse. This structure, while odd,
helps the audience to initially understand why Joel and Clementine have decided
to erase each other from their respective memories, while eventually showing us
the happier earlier days from their relationship. This is coupled with the fact
that the audience is viewing this from the perspective of Joel as he undergoes
the memory-wipe procedure – and his emotional journey of deciding that he doesn’t
want to forget.The events of the films story follow three main
strands – the Reality of Joel and Clementine’s relationship and subsequent
break-up, Joel’s Mind and his recollections of these events as they are being
erased, and the Lacuna Erasers who are working on an unconscious Joel to erase
his memories. The bulk of the film’s story takes place in Joel’s Mind, which is
occurring simultaneously with the Lacuna Erasers. This could be considered one
of Allan Cameron’s modular narratives – split-screen narrative. With two major
strands of the film’s story happening at the same time, a significant portion
of the narrative is split. This allows for interesting juxtaposition between Joel’s
emotionally charged memories of Clementine and the Eraser’s almost-casual approach
to removing these memories. The film is book-ended by scenes which take place in
Reality, again in an unorthodox sense with both the opening and final scenes showing
Joel and Clementine after Joel’s procedure has finished. By taking this
approach with narrative, Gondry has achieved a greater level of audience
engagement as the audience must work to piece together the narrative of the film
as it is being presented to them.Another notable aspect of the film’s narrative
is how it presents its story in terms of time. Gondry makes use of what Gerard Genette
referred to as anachrony – temporal disruptions in the narrative. Eternal Sunshine… (Gondry, 2004) has a
narrative that for the most part takes place retrospectively – in that most of
the events the audience are presented with have already happened and we are
simply seeing Joel’s recollection of these events as they are erased from his
memory. The term analepsis could be applied here by the definition of it as
being “any evocation after the fact of an
event that took place earlier than the point in the story where we are at any
given moment” (Dellal, 1973). The main way in which this technique is used
is in the sub-plot where one of the Lacuna Erasers, Patrick (Elijah Wood), is using
Joel’s journal to romance Clementine with the same phrases and dates that made
her fall for Joel initially. This is exemplified when we see Joel and Clementine
on a frozen lake together and Joel tells her how happy he is – then shortly
after we see Patrick at the same lake with Clementine, awkwardly quoting Joel’s
declaration of happiness at her. This evokes the audience’s response to the
first frozen lake scene, and how it was a tender and romantic moment, and
contrasts it to the stilted interaction Patrick and Clementine have. The effect
of this all is to make the audience invested in the relationship between Joel
and Clementine, and root for Joel in his attempts to derail the procedure from
inside his own subconscious.One other aspect of the
narrative that is worth analysing is the level of difference between Eternal
Sunshine and its contemporaries within the romance genre. Romance is a genre
which has been popular since the golden age of Hollywood with films like Roman Holiday (Wyler, 1953) and
continues to be popular today in films such as The Notebook (Cassavetes, 2004). Whilst Eternal Sunshine is certainly a romance at its core, it defies several
narrative conventions that are often expected of the genre in mainstream
cinema. For one, its plot does not begin with the central romantic pairing
meeting, getting to know each other and moving forward in chronological order –
instead the film begins with them having recently broken up and eventually
working backwards from there. This use of plot also means that the first the
audience see of Joel and Clementine as a couple is when they are at the end of
their relationship – bitter and unhappy. Few mainstream films would introduce
their central couple at their most unlikeable and risk the audience souring on
them. However, by doing this Gondry makes his protagonists much more relatable
than most mainstream romances do – showing the unpleasant side of a relationship
demonstrates that the film, while employing some high-concept sci-fi elements,
has a commitment to emotional realism.Gondry does an effective job of communicating
information about his main characters – by the end of the first sequence of the
film, the audience already knows the core characteristics of its protagonists. Joel
is shown the be a shy and introspective man, an effective way in which this is
communicated to the audience is through the use of first-person narration from
Joel. 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 this
information is being relayed by Joel essentially talking to himself adds
another layer of loneliness for the audience to pick up on. Clementine is also introduced
here, appearing to be meeting Joel for the first time. Her colourful appearance
and talkative nature immediately signpost her as being a near polar opposite to
Joel. The audience of mainstream romance films has been conditioned to expect
the main couple to usually have a meet-cute
– a term used by the likes of film critic Roger Ebert (2004) to describe how many
romance films, such as When Harry Met
Sally (Reiner, 1989), will have their protagonists meet in unusual or cute
circumstances.  However, this trope is
upturned by the reveal later in the film that Joel and Clementine had been in a
long-term relationship prior to this meet-cute. The reverse-order nature of the
narrative means that as the film goes on the audience is revealed new
information about why these characters were drawn to each other in the first
place.The film’s unorthodox
narrative structure is unlike most other mainstream romance films. This, again
comes down to Gondry and Kaufman’s plot decision to have the film begin with Joel
and Clementine having recently broken up. This eschews the structure that most romance
films follow – the couple meet, fall in love, break up or stay together. By opening
the film with the central couple broken up, Gondry had made the conscious decision
to strip the film of the tension that would usually come from a narrative that
follows the usual will they, won’t they
dynamic; the audience is told the fate of their relationship in the first act. This
means 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 stop
his own memory wiping procedure. The effect of this is that the film now has an
element of the thriller genre in it’s high-concept and unique plot engaging
well with the audience.Joel is well utilised as
a restricted narrator, his perspective provides the narrative with a clear
focus point; allowing the audience easily to recognise Joel as the protagonist
and point-of-view character of the film. The narrative of the film is
distinctly shaped by Gondry’s decision to have Joel as the main character. Had he
chosen Clementine, for instance, the film’s plot and structure would be very
different. Joel’s narration also evolved over the course of the film – starting
off as a reserved description of his actions and thoughts on the day that the
audience is first introduced to him, he begins to reflect more on his deeper
feelings and emotions the deeper he journeys into his own subconscious. This
narrative device has been effectively utilised by Gondry to illustrate Joel’s
evolution as a character through the unorthodox means of having his memory
wiped. It is also typical of Eternal
Sunshine’s anti-cliché style that the central emotional journey of the
protagonist is almost totally undone in the end, as Joel’s memory is
successfully wiped of Clementine. As previously mentioned, one of the main examples
of Gondry’s unorthodox approach to plot in Eternal Sunshine is that the film’s
opening scenes in fact take place after the majority of the story’s events. Although
there is the chance that the audience may figure this out before the film
reveals it, because of how these scenes are presented as Joel and Clementine
meeting for the first time and that we don’t see their actual first encounter
until near the end. However, Gondry’s structuring and direction of Kaufman’s
script means that this reveal is not set up as a twist ending that supports the
entire film, rather as a revelation that reframes the rest of the plot and
gives those opening scenes a new significance and poignance. The ending of
Eternal Sunshine, then, is the events that follow what the audience had assumed
was Joel and Clementine’s first meeting but now know was them being drawn
together despite having now memory of their relationship. The reflection of the
opening increases its impact; Joel running to get a train to Montauk initially
seemed like a bizarre impulse decision, now it is seen as him subconsciously
remembering that Clementine told him to meet her there – his awkward sprint to
the train now has a substantially greater effect on the audience. Gondry’s
decision to have the ending of Eternal Sunshine reflect the opening so explicitly
results in a narrative which has a powerful effect on the audience and imbues
the opening scenes – part of a film which can often feel like necessary but
dull scene-setting – with an added weight and emotion.To conclude, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is
a tremendous example of how an inventive narrative can improve a film. Gondry
and Kaufman have used both of their considerable talents to craft a moving film
that manages to avoid succumbing to genre clichés while remaining appealing to
a mainstream audience. It is a towering achievement in modern filmmaking.