This is my favourite film. It will probably remain my favourite film forever, and now I am etching that onto the stainless steel face of the internet, where it will stay as long as I pay my URL fees. How’s that for commitment?
It’s one of the few films on this list that I’d also argue is in the running for the Best Film of All Time. That’s not something I’d ever say about last week’s #2, Fight Club – its importance is too personal, too tied to my own history. But I have very few memories tied to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which, luckily, stops this from straying anywhere too autobiographical like some entries have tended to.
Eternal Sunshineis a film firing on cylinders, every element hitting every note perfectly at the same time, in a way I’ve never seen since. Actors, director, writer, photography, soundtrack, effects … all objectively perfect. Fact.
It starts out looking like an indie romance film. Joel Barish wakes up bored with his life – as narrated in a gravelly, remorseful whisper – and impulsively ditches work to go somewhere beautiful and desolate. There he meets the quirky Clementine Kruczynski, and they, awkwardly, fall for each other. Nothing particularly special there – this first 20 minutes is an actor’s piece, director and writer waiting for their time to show off, and Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet sell it perfectly. It’s not an easy task, as proved by all the other indie slice-of-life romances I watched afterwards, to make a relationship interesting and convincing so quickly.
Then, with a flourish, we jump back and suddenly Joel is in his car, crying and listening to Beck’s cover of Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime. The film is structured non-linearly; roughly speaking, it rewinds through Joel and Clementine’s relationship to show us first how it went wrong and then later, why it worked.
Unlike the tight formal structure of Memento, though, it’s not that simple – the rewinding takes place inside Joel’s head, as the men he has hired to wipe all his memories of Clementine do just that. It’s all interwoven with segments arranged in order, with a b-plot telling the story of the guys doing the memory wiping. And, it turns out, the start of the film is also actually the end – Joel and Clementine are meeting again, by apparent chance.
The split between internal and external allows Michel ‘le réalisateur’ Gondry, and Charlie ‘the author’ Kaufman chances to shine. Gondry is another director with a background in music videos and adverts, one of my favourite creators in any medium who has never quite found another cinematic vehicle for his tremendous imagination. The fantasy world of Joel’s memory provides Gondry with a chance to play his trompe l’oeil tricks – characters disappear and reappear wearing different clothes, apparently in the same take; streets endlessly mirror themselves; remembered locations blend into one another – and fiddle with cinematic techniques to reflect the process of memory loss.
Meanwhile, Kaufman finds a clever sci-fi concept – of a company who can wipe your powerful memories, Lacuna Inc, who can unremember it for you wholesale. It’s an idea which can dig under your skin, so you find yourself wondering in idle moments what exactly you’d delete from your past. But then, even better, he finds the mundaneity and reality in it. Lacuna’s offices are reminiscent of a trip to the dentist; the memory-wipers enjoy a few beers, a joint, and the contents of Joel’s booze cupboard while he sleeps.
It matches up with the slightly wonky sci-fi tech that Gondry conjures – the upturned-colander that sits on the patient’s head, the slightly retro computers – and gives it all sense and meaning, reigning in his excesses. In return, Kaufman’s writing is lent a rare warmth and humanity. It’s the classic odd couple – sloppy meets clinical – and the contrast makes both stronger.
Notably, neither has another film on this list, and very few of the actors involved appear in any of the other 49 either. The ensemble cast, far beyond Carrey and Winslet – both cast against type, playing the role the other would traditionally fill, and proving they should have been doing this all along – is flawless. Elijah Wood, as ever, benefits from being cast as a character with a bit of a sleazy dark streak; Mark Ruffalo is one of cinema’s most loveable slackers; Kirsten Dunst was always meant to play the confused young girl in love; Tom Wilkinson is never anything less than fantastic.
Each of those parts – clever indie romance, surrealist dream sequences, inventive but grounded sci-fi – would be enough to guarantee a place on this list. But they form a whole more than the simple sum of its parts, creating a world with a whimsical sense of unreality, but exactly as much reality as is needed to sell the emotions.
Oh, the emotions. Joel and Clementine quickly feel like a real couple. As we rewind through their past (at least, in one strand of the film) it becomes clear, through the fog of all the arguments, why they’re together in the first place. In one of the most freeing moments I’ve ever seen in a film, the two accept that, yes, it will all go horribly wrong, but it’s worth it. And then the endless, beautiful futility of it all is played out in a moment repeated over and over, skipping and eventually fading into purest white.
And that’s all enough to catch in my throat, but the stakes are higher than the traditional romantic threat of the two being parted – the permanence of memories and feelings are in jeopardy too. There’s something sacred about memory, a lesson I’ve been bludgeoned over the head with over the last year, and Eternal Sunshine reaches the only logical conclusion – in the end, for all our follies and humiliations, our past – every last awful part of it – is as vital as our future.
So why not spend a year of your life celebrating it, eh?