If you could willingly have the memory of someone removed from your consciousness, would you? This is the question posed by director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman in 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,' a trippy, time-bending examination of memory, love, and an individual's development through their painful experiences. Combining light elements of science fiction with a modern day world, the filmmakers construct a dense maze for their main characters and their audiences that's surprisingly poignant -- speaking directly to personality, experience, and the human condition.
The film tells the story of Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), two people who casually met, fell in love, and drifted apart. Some time after they've separated, Joel finds out that Clementine visited a local psychiatrist (Tom Wilkinson) and had her memory of their entire relationship erased. Anger, pseudo-revenge, and desperation push him to seek out the same doctor and have the procedure to erase his memories of her as well. Three technicians (Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood) visit Joel's apartment and work through the night to remove the memories of Clementine from an unconscious Joel's mind. The remaining bulk of the movie actually takes place in Joel's mind as he suddenly decides he doesn't want to forget Clementine. Unable to wake up, he struggles through literal incarnations of his subconscious realities, his dream worlds, and his memories to hide remnants of Clementine where the technicians can't find them.
Sound complicated? While it becomes slightly difficult to follow as the movie pulses along, it steadily becomes clear what's happening inside of Joel's mind. Patience is required as the linear timeline of his memories eventually comes into focus (here's a hint -- keep your eye on Clementine's hair color to track the timeline of their relationship history). Those with a keen mind, an attention to detail, and the desire to unravel character arc mysteries are almost sure to fall in love with 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'
Critics adored the film, showering it with praise upon its theatrical release, with some even listing it as their top pick among 2004 releases. It won an Academy Award in 2005 for Best Original Screenplay and racked up several acting and directing honors from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the BAFTAs. A lot of attention was also given to the excellent performances. Jim Carrey pulls off the dramatic role of his lifetime and really exercises his naturalism in the shy but explosive Joel. Moments of humor are sweet and authentic, but never hammy or over-the-top as you might expect from Carrey. Kate Winslet is also a revelation -- she crafts Clementine into a manic, self-sufficient woman that is adorable when her relationship with Joel is going well and starkly bitter when it's not. Playing the same girl, she masterfully moves through four different character arcs in the course of the film. The supporting cast, anchored by the wonderfully over-confident Wilkinson, is perfectly eccentric as well -- Dunst is flighty but troubled, Ruffalo is naïve but hesitant, and Wood is darkly comic but genuine.
Last but not least, I'd be remiss not to take a paragraph to hit on Kaufman and Gondry. While I'm hardly the first to praise Kaufman's screenplay, the thing that impresses me most about it is that it continues to reveal its hidden layers to me, even after having watched the film a dozen times over the last two years. Gondry, as well, is simply brilliant in his direction. Somehow he manages to create dreamscapes that almost consistently ring true -- functioning like dreams, faltering like memories, and skiping from beat to beat just like the mind scans through thoughts. The cinematography and the practical effects are all awe inspiring, and I can't imagine this film working as well under any other director.
In the end, the surreal world of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' may not be for everyone, but if you enjoyed 'Being John Malkovich' or 'Adaptation' (both also written by Kaufman), you're almost sure to love this film. A great script, Gondry's direction, and the pitch perfect performances make this film a personal favorite, and a solid recommend.
I've been disappointed by the video quality on a couple of Universal's more recent HD DVD catalog titles (namely 'The Game' and 'The Jerk'), but thankfully 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' brings that trend to an end, with a gorgeous transfer that's as impressive as I hoped it would be. Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, this disc showcases a beautiful source, heavy black levels, and vibrant bursts of color despite the film's muted palette.
Skintones are natural, shadow delineation adds a nice level of depth to the picture, and reds and blues often seep off the screen. Clementine's hair, clothing fabric, and the warm lighting in Joel's apartment look amazing. Texture detail, fine object detail, and crisp edges make everything clear and equally defined in the foreground and the background. One look at the background in the psychiatrist's office confirms how sharp the image is -- I could read the text on pamphlets, make out small book titles, and see the individual page corners sticking out of closed file folders. The contrast levels are incredible and scenes in the snow are just as organic as scenes cast in heavy shadows. Also impressive are all of the darker scenes in Joel's subconscious -- there aren't any issues with black crush and the detail in the corners is much more visible than in the standard edition DVD. The practical visual effects and filtering tricks don't hinder the video at all and actually look more convincing in high-def than they did before. With all of that being said, the best examples of the transfer's quality come during Joel's memories of quieter moments with Clementine -- the colors are pleasant, the picture is effervescent, and the tonal palette is natural.
There are only a handful of nitpick moments where I noticed minute issues. First, the white sky flickers with color banding in three shots during the various snow scenes. Second, visibility was obscured by darkness on a few rare occasions -- these weren't scenes in Joel's mind, but rather scenes in the real world where details were slightly more visible on the standard DVD. Third, there are two nighttime shots in the real world where the low lighting makes the picture feel a bit murky (watch when the technician arrives at Clementine's apartment to see what I mean). Finally, there are two scenes outside of Joel's apartment where the shots are briefly softer than the rest of the film. A quick check on the standard DVD reveals the drop happens there as well, so this is likely an issue with the source. All in all though, these minor problems only keep the transfer from being perfect. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is still a wonderful treat for the eyes.
Almost as good as the video transfer is the excellent audio package, which features a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix. You might assume that this film would be a quiet, dialogue heavy flick, but quite the opposite is true. While there are moments of silence, scenes in Joel's mind explode with sound. Collapsing buildings, air implosions, lingering voices from the technicians, and ambiance creates a nightmarish soundscape. The subwoofer hits overdrive at times and the earthy bass tones are well rounded and resonant. Likewise, dialogue is crisp and clear with treble tones that never waver or ring in the higher range. The track can be front heavy at times, but according to an interview with Gondry, scenes outside of Joel's mind are audibly subdued so that scenes inside his consciousness feel more alive to the audience than the real world.
Every channel gets a full workout and the soundfield has great movement, accuracy, and presence. The track makes it very easy to immerse in the world of the film and I found myself tricked into thinking some of the more subtle effects were taking place in my home theater. The sound design is expertly prioritized and every sound that should be heard is heard. There are a few moments in Joel's subconscious when things are obscured or inaudible, but these moments again appear to be intentionally stylized in this manner by the director.
The only larger issue I had with the mix concerns the volume of the soundtrack. While I enjoyed the musical selection and the score itself, I remember the music having a fuller presence when I saw the film in theaters. I noticed the same thing on the standard DVD and can only imagine this was altered after its theatrical run for some reason. It's not muffled or too low, it just seemed to swell more the first time I saw the film -- so take that for what it's worth.
This HD DVD edition of 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' collects all of the standard-def supplements from both the regular DVD and the two-disc collector's edition DVD. How Universal squeezed all of these features onto a 30GB disc and still delivered such superior video and audio quality is nothing short of a miracle in my book. All of the features are top notch and worth the time it takes to work through them all.
Things start off on the right foot with an excellent commentary featuring director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman. Gondry has a heavy French accent, but after about five minutes I found him to be quite easy to follow and understand. Both Gondry and Kaufman pack the track with informative details about the roots of the story, the writing, the filming, the performances, and the differences between the original script and the final film. While both men compliment each other on a regular basis, they're also light on their feet, poking fun at each other's inadequacies. It's clear they have a mutual respect for each other and have developed a tight friendship. Gondry drifts into long descriptions of the technical tricks of the film at times, but only to describe how certain effects and camera shots worked with minimal CG enhancement. This is a great commentary track abuzz with all sorts of information that I never found to be dry or boring in any way. The only thing that could've made it better was if it were a part of a picture-in-picture HD In-Movie Experience track.
Next up is a nice little video titled "A Look Inside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (11 minutes). It's a generally amusing featurette with a host of candid interviews. It incorporates a lot of clips from the film (which makes it feel promotional at times), but overall it has a lot of good information and details on the themes of the film. The actor and director interviews are particuarly insightful as they discuss character motivations and the ideas that went into the development and evolution of the film.
"A Conversation with Jim Carrey and Director Michel Gondry" (15 minutes) is an engaging and personable behind-the-scenes montage cut together with the actor and the director sharing stories from filming. Rehearsal footage, bloopers, and outtakes pepper this light hearted featurette and Carrey's comedic timing is impeccable. I was surprised in the behind-the-scenes footage to see everyone having such a good time on set since it is such an emotionally heavy film. Watch for funny tales of a fight that almost broke out on set between Gondry and Carrey, a bed-car with bad brakes, and a fascinating look at the improvised filming of the circus parade scene. Carrey even reveals that a lot of Joel's psychological makeup was his own -- Gondry let him adapt the script and character to reflect his own inner turmoil. Most interesting of all, the featurette examines the forced perspective sets that made the actors appear to be the size of children (especially the kitchen table shot). It was fascinating to see a scene like this dissected and to watch a person shrink as they walked from the front of the table to the back in what appeared to be a very small set.
Moving along, you'll find "A Conversation with Kate Winslet and Michel Gondry" (13 minutes) which features a more serious discussion of the film that doesn't include any further behind-the-scenes footage. While it's still a very casual piece, this is a deeper talk about the themes and character motivations in the film. Winslet and Gondry talk about the rehearsal process, the other actors, the shooting schedule, and the multiple takes on the set. There's a lot of information about Gondry as well since Winslet turns the tables and starts asking questions to him as well. The most interesting thing about this featurette is the examination of Gondry's on set behavior. As Winslet describes it, his adaptable style created "a let's just try it out atmosphere" that led to unexpected additions to the film.
"Inside the Mind of Michel Gondry" (19 minutes) is even more absorbing featurette, which combines interviews from the cast and crew as they talk about Gondry, his improvisational filming, his intelligence, and the fact that he's able to easily gain trust. The best part of this supplement, however, comes when Gondry takes center stage and describes how many of the scenes with disappearing memories and strange occurrences in Joel's mind were practical effects. He shows off how each shot was realized, the tricks used to make camera filters look more complicated than they were, and how the low-tech methods used in the film kept the budget down.
Next up is an on-location featurette called the "Anatomy of a Scene: Saratoga Avenue" (17 minutes). It covers the entire filming and editing process of a complex shot where Joel is trapped in his memories. Intercut with interviews from cast and crew, the scene unfolds as it's captured on set, altered with practical effects, and edited together to the final cut that appears in the film. Just when things began to lose my attention, the featurette shifted gears and included an extensive section that covers the musical score of the film. Following the composer as he writes the score, conducts it, and layers it into the film, this section could've been a separate supplement on its own. As the featurette wraps up, Gondry explains the tone of the Saratoga Avenue scene and the elements in the shot that reflect his themes.
Not one, but two series of deleted scenes appear on the disc. The first collection of scenes (7 minutes) is comprised of poor quality, unfinished footage. It features some intriguing character moments, but meanders a bit more than it reveals. However, the second group of excised scenes is presented with higher video quality and adds in an entire subplot where Joel remembers another ex-girlfriend, a handful of tense scenes where Kirsten Dunst finds a tape recording of herself, and a lengthy conversation between Joel and Clementine in his apartment. All of the scenes are great additions to the film as a whole -- it just would've been nice to know where they would have fit in the finished film if they hadn't been deleted.
Coming close to the end is one of the strangest things I've ever seen -- all I can say is that it creeped me out more than anything in the film. The "Polyphonic Spree Light & Day Music Video" (3 minutes) is composed entirely of scenes from the movie, but Jim Carrey's mouth has been altered with bad CG so that it appears as if he's singing the lyrics to the song. But it doesn't stop there --all of the sudden, everything's singing: brain scans, a coffee mug, a house, a plate of food, Kate Winslet, a car, an oven... even an elephant. It's all pretty laughable, but it struck a strange chord inside my brain and I'm not looking forward to the images popping up in my dreams later tonight.
Last but not least, there's a great low-budget television commercial for the memory erasure procedure in the film. Tom Wilkinson is quirky and deadpans the clip brilliantly. It really looks like something you'd see on TV at three in the morning and even includes a website for the clinic.
'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is a twisted look inside of a man's subconscious which is sure to frighten, disturb, and enlighten an audience's perception of their own minds. Some wonderful performances, a great script, and interesting direction and effects work make this a must see flick for those open to a more surreal cinematic experience. This HD DVD edition boasts an amazing video transfer, a lively audio package, and an avalanche of solid extras that extend the replayability of the film quite a bit. In short, this disc is a no-brainer that impressed me in almost every way.