Michael Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses surrealist imagery to explore memory and the human desire to avoid pain. The film stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett as Joel and Clementine respectively. The method of alternate viewing I used was alternating watching and not watching for fifteen minute periods. I found that this forced me to pay closer attention to the parts of the film that I was watching to understand the plot. Our protagonist, Joel, has broken up with his girlfriend of two years, Clementine. Desiring to escape from the pain of his memories and partially due to her erasing her memories first he elects to have his memories erased.
The film uses surrealism to depict Joel’s memories and the further into the process he goes the more strange and unnatural the world becomes. The process is like that of a lucid dream. The dreamscape or rather memory-scape is a world in which Joel is fully aware that he is undergoing a memory erasure. At first he is passive, allowing his memories to be erased, but as he loses more and more he realizes that he wants his memories and begins to fight the process. His resistance creates a nightmarish imagery. This first instance of his resistance makes him think that he is trapped in a street. No matter which way he runs he cannot escape from the space he was in in that moment. The space is limited like a continuous loop. The more he fights and attempts to linger in his memories the more nightmarish they become. As Joel and his memory of Clementine attempt to evade the doctors they begin to collide with his other unrelated memories. There is a scene in which he is transported back to his childhood. He and Clementine shrink down to the size of babies resulting in the bizarre scene of Joel’s mother bathing them in the kitchen sink.
In other scenes Joel’s memories have been partially erased leading to disturbing sights such as a man with no face standing in the center of a darkened room. In another a man’s eyes appear to glitch as if digitized.
The film plays with its memory setting. By treating the memory world as a dream world, it can create a sense of verisimilitude that is uncanny.
The mise-en-scene depicts the memory loss using light and backgrounds. Nearing the completion of the erasure, Joel and his memory of Clementine are bathed in bright white light while any lights in the background go out. The movie also uses the disappearance of background elements to symbolize the ongoing memory loss. When Joel and Clementine run through a book shop the shelves begin to disappear behind them. A montage is used to communicate the escalation of the process and nearing completion the camera also creeps closer and closer to them, eventually zooming in until it is an extreme close-up of Joel. When the camera pulls out he is alone, and his last memory of Clementine has been erased. This technique creates an emotional bond with Joel. As the audience, we have watched him fight to stop the erasure, but he is doomed to slowly lose his memories. We feel his loss and horror of losing someone and not even having memories for comfort. The film ends on a long take of the two frolicking on the beach that calls back the earlier shot of Joel alone at the beach. The camera work is used to establish the mood of the scene.
Another visual cue the film uses are the outfits the characters’ wear. Joel wears brown or dark colours which indicates his more laid-back personality. Clementine on the other hand wears bright colours usually red, orange, and/or blue which suit her outgoing style.
When Joel first meets her on the train her hair is blue and her sweater is bright orange. The orange is a warning that her character is both significant to Joel and a source of danger, the danger being their failed relationship.
The film uses surrealism to depict memory. It relies on camerawork, lighting, and background to indicate mood and plot. The main message of the movie is a hopeful one. The very last shot of the film echoes one from earlier. It is a long take of Joel and Clementine chasing each other on the beach.
This is the same beach from the beginning of the film which Joel visited alone.
The two have a chance for a fresh start and are now are of what they came to dislike when their relationship failed the first time. It is a lovely and poignant thought which fills the viewer with hope.