While good films are allowed a few missteps, truly great films are about the confluence of many great things. Great films are about the serendipity of timeless talent doing their best work together. If this can’t be said for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then it can’t be said for any film. As collaborations go, Sunshine sits in the stratosphere with films like Network or Star Wars; moments of such dramatic success that it seems impossible luck wasn’t somehow involved. It’s not precisely that the individuals involved with a movie like Eternal Sunshine will never again achieve a similar success, so much as they can forever after know that they achieved what they set out to do when they decided to make films: produce something timeless, and universal, and thoroughly, unequivocally great.
As love stories go, if you’ve heard one, then you’ve heard them all. For the most part. There are those rare exceptions where a writer does something so unique you can’t ignore its originality. And to be clear, I don’t mean unique in the sense that it is gimmicky or simply different, though you could say both of those things about Sunshine. Uniqueness here represents the utterly unromantic approach to love that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (along with fellow writers Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth) ends up taking. Now, there’s surely romance in the film, and if you snuggle up next to your sweetie pie during a late night viewing you’ll see it in great abundance, but the important distinction to make is that it’s never romance for romance’s sake. It’s not melodramatic romance or romance that forsakes reality. If anything, Kaufman’s Sunshine comes down far harder than most love stories on the side of reality, it’s characters picking up more emotional scrapes and bruises than most romantic protagonists. This devotion to veracity is what, among many, many other things, makes the film so good, and significantly, so timeless. Despite its clear presence in the early aughts, with music and style choices and so on, the themes of Eternal Sunshine will never not be true.
Though connected to the more general theme of “love and its inconveniences”, parsing all of the individual themes is a bit of a workout. For one thing, every character in this film is in a romantic relationship with some other character, another one of Kaufman’s genuinely brilliant devices. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is in love with Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), who has chosen to have him erased by Lacuna Inc., a company founded and run by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who is secretly loved by the beautiful young Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who is loved out loud by Stan the Eraser (Mark Ruffalo) whose fellow Eraser Patrick (Elijah Wood) fell deeply and quite superficially in love with Clementine when performing her erasure, and has since been seducing her with Joel’s words and gifts. It’s like a college dorm, but with adults of varying ages and maturities. What’s maddening and brilliant about all these separate relationships is the varying types of love they represent. Joel and Clem seem to be the real thing, while Patrick’s adoration of Clem is devastatingly shallow. Stan and Mary seem to have a real connection, but she can’t escape her devoted crush on Howard. These are all relationships, and all relationships that can claim at least one passionate member, but they can’t be called equivalent. Or can they? Though love is surely complex, is there are a point at which a loving relationship is simply stop or go? With the two key protagonists’ resignation in the film’s final moments, Kaufman seems to be simplifying the whole thing down to an equation: Love is simply there, and you keep love by making the decision to go forward with love, and you take your punches.
You can’t talk about Eternal Sunshine without talking about Michel Gondry and his finest behind-the-camera work to date. I spoke earlier of a serendipitous confluence, and that certainly feels the case here, to at least a small extent. This is simply the perfect script for a director like Gondry, with all the time it spends inside of the mind, and its strange relationship with reality. Gondry can turn people off with his antics, taking his ingenuity to hectic, even unnerving places. This may have been a bit true with The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, but in Eternal Sunshine he applies his imagination gently and appropriately, never going outside of what seems reasonable. Reasonable, of course, for the bizarre inner workings of a man’s mind. Gondry’s faceless doctors, toddler-sized adults, cyclical city blocks, disintegrating cars and so on all make sense in context, and this magnificent partnership between Gondry and Kaufman is the invincible foundation Sunshine is built from.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of those rare cases where everyone involved can call it, at the very least, one of the top moments in their film career. Certainly Jim Carrey can call this his best dramatic work, including The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. The absurdly talented Kate Winslet, whose career is an Oscar Lifetime Achievement Award waiting to happen, can consider this one of her most interesting, engaging, and developed characters. As for Gondry and Kaufman, this is their masterpiece, and that’s truly saying something. And as much as they can pat themselves on the back, they should all be sure to acknowledge the subject matter, as the universality of this story depends on the universality of love. Nothing reaches the depths of an individual so consistently as love. It is the stuff that we are all either looking for or holding on to desperately, and this pair of geniuses have portrayed it more painfully, more vividly, more exceptionally then most who have come before or after them.