I can’t seem to get Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind out of my head, which is appropriate, considering the film’s subject matter. The script by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)--from an original idea by Gondry, Pierre Bismuth, and Kaufman--tells the story of introverted Joel (Jim Carrey), who discovers his impulsive girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had every trace of their two years together erased by Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), whose Lacuna, Inc. guarantees “the focused erasure of unwanted memories.” The bulk of the movie takes place at Joel’s apartment (and in the recesses of Joel’s brain!), where two Lacuna technicians (Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood) attempt to remove Clementine from Joel’s memory while he struggles to keep her. Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, a receptionist in Mierzwiak’s office.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a time travel story for people who favor modern romance over science fiction. It’s a warts-and-all look at love, but surprisingly poignant and tender. In somebody else’s hands, it might have turned into a cynical valentine, an anti-relationship rant. Instead, I found it hopeful and heroic. At the core of Eternal Sunshine are two people, fully aware that their relationship will eventually dissolve in a lethal mix of anger, frustration, and humiliation, electing to relive the whole mess in order to experience moments of genuine love.
That the movie doesn’t promise “happily ever after” makes it one of the most honest love stories you’ll ever see. Most importantly, it’s a beautifully-made film. Michel Gondry is a consummate filmmaker, a genuine dreamer, a technological wizard. The visuals are often stunning, as is the attention to detail. If you look closely, you’ll see a tiny heart at the center of Jim Carrey’s brain scan.
Speaking of Carrey, he’s never been better in a serious role. Punch Drunk Love may have alienated legions of Adam Sandler fans who felt cheated when their hero wasn’t acting like a jackass, and there will probably be people reluctant to spend $8 to witness Carrey doing anything besides taking pratfalls and talking out of his ass. They’ll be missing one of the best films of the year.
What most people know about Michel Gondry is that he’s directed a number of high profile music videos: six for Bjork alone, including “Human Behavior” and “Bachelorette,” the ingenious White Stripes clip for “Fell in Love with a Girl,” in which Jack and Meg are rendered in Lego blocks, and memorable works for Beck, Kylie Minogue, Rolling Stones, and Foo Fighters. His spot for Levi’s jeans, a scratchy black and white number depicting a teenager buying condoms from a pharmacist, neither of them aware that the young man has a date with the pharmacist’s daughter, earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most lauded television spot of all-time.
You don’t need to know that Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter describes Gondry’s mind as “naïve and complex,” combining a child’s wonder and curiosity with a highly “logical and mathematical” mind, or that Gondry’s pet themes of nature vs. technology and city vs. country likely stem from his hometown in France, where he lived in a house that bordered the forest. Or that he gets some of his best ideas while he sleeps. The only thing you need to know about Michel Gondry is that he is—simply put—a creative genius.
I saw Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind on a Monday, and five days later Michel Gondry called me from Los Angeles, speaking perfect English with a heavy French accent.
After complimenting him on the new film, we talked about the script’s genesis. According to the press kit, the film was inspired by Gondry’s friend Pierre Bismuth, who came up with the notion of mailing cards to people with the news they’d been erased from someone’s memory. In the end, Gondry said Kaufman wrote three drafts.
An earlier incarnation of the script, currently circulating on the Internet, starts 50 years in the future with the story revealed through Clementine’s flashbacks. That script was peppered with literary references—Robert Frost, Stephen Dixon, The Velveteen Rabbit, Anna Ahkmatova, and a discussion of Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs.” Mary’s relationship with Dr. Mierzwiak was also more substantial, and a subplot involving Joel’s reunion with ex-girlfriend Naomi was filmed, but later discarded. “We had to simplify the story,” Gondry said. “Some of it was changed during the editing process, with both of us—Charlie and I—talking about it.”
While Kaufman hammered out the new script (he was already involved with Spike Jonze’s Adaptation), Gondry directed Human Nature, based on another Kaufman screenplay. The film starred Patricia Arquette, Tim Robbins, and Rhys Ifans and suffered from frequent comparisons to Being John Malkovich. It’s not a perfect film, but it contains some wonderful performances (Tim Robbins hasn’t been this entertaining since The Hudsucker Proxy) and some clear indications of Gondry’s visual skill. In the end, Gondry was depressed by the film’s criticism and lackluster box-office performance. “Some of the responses were a little personal to me,” he said, and it made him question his own creativity. “I felt my brain was going slower.” What eventually pulled Gondry out of his funk was a pair of music videos, including his work on the Lego-riffic “Fell In Love With a Girl,” which is one of his favorite videos ever, and which convinced him his brain was working again.
Still, “It was really scary to start the new film,” Gondry said. He likens the process to a woman giving birth to her second child. “She knows the pain of the first while giving birth, but you forget. Genetically, we’re programmed to forget the pain. Otherwise, we’d never go anywhere.”
Gondry may have been disappointed by Human Nature’s reception, but actors loved it, including Jim Carrey, who started lobbying for the role of Joel in Eternal Sunshine. Co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Kirsten Dunst also cite Human Nature as the main reason they wanted to work with Gondry.
We talked about visual influences, and Gondry admitted he’d rather get his inspiration from the science museum than another film director. We talked briefly of Chaplin and Jean Vigo and Luis Buñuel, and Gondry was extremely enthusiastic about the work of Russian animator Yuri Norstein. Ultimately, Gondry is committed to coming up with brand new visuals, of putting the contents of his dreams, of his own head, on the big screen. He is spontaneous, even after the cameras have stopped rolling.
“The editing process was a creative one,” Gondry said. “I knew I wanted to be able to go into the editing room and reinvent the film, because I knew some of the juxtaposition of memory or images would be more powerful if they were not planned before.” Gondry, Kaufman, and editor Valdís Óskarsdóttir (a Dogme veteran) worked very closely to rework the film. “We had to move things around,” Gondry said. “Dramatically, we had a problem at the end. The scene at the Charles River was written after he wakes up from the procedure. I think we wanted to reach the confrontation they have at the end sooner.”
One of my favorite images in the film is the shot of Carrey and Winslet lying on the frozen river, a few feet from a large crack in the ice. I told Gondry it reminded me of a framed photograph of two lovers with a crack in the glass. He loved it, said he’d see about incorporating it in an upcoming campaign. Clearly, Gondry is willing to take inspiration from wherever he finds it.
“The fact that I’m allowed to do a movie and be creative and show it around is incredible luck. I have to remind myself of that. I think the Oscar ceremony and all of the celebrations—they make you forget that. It makes you disappointed you didn’t win, and the main thing is being able to shoot something! To me, it’s all a blessing—to do a video, or commercial, or a movie. It’s such a joy! It’s better if people like it, but the joy is when you put your dreams on film. It’s such a great feeling.”
Other than Wes Anderson, I can scarcely think of a director who is as adept at handling whimsy and melancholy as Gondry. Still, he remains extremely modest about his abilities. “I’m excited and scared and I put both in balance. My fear would make me run away, but then I realize if I don’t do that, I won’t do another movie. So I have to do it. I counterbalance my fear with my excitement.”
Before I said goodbye, I asked Gondry if there was anything he couldn’t do.
“That’s funny,” he said after a pause. “That’s a line I put in my script (for Science of Sleep, Gondry’s next film project). The guy dreams he’s a star, and he’s being interviewed. He’s an architect, he’s a writer—all this happens in his dream. And the first question is, ‘Is there anything you can’t do?” As he hangs up, he tells me he can’t sing in tune.
“When I did the DVD, I realized each video is a little bit of me.”
If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind leaves you hungry for more, pick up a copy of The Work of Michel Gondry, part of Palm Pictures’ excellent Director’s Label series. The double-sided DVD is packed with over two dozen of Gondry’s best music videos (Bjork, The White Stripes, Beck, Foo Fighters, Kylie Minogue, and more, including Oui-Oui, Gondry’s former band) and commercials (Levi’s, Smirnoff, Polaroid). There’s also several short films, a book filled with Gondry’s drawings and interviews, and a 75 minute Gondry documentary entitled “I’ve Been 12 Forever.”
Palm Pictures offers similar discs from directors Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham. All 3 retail for $19.95.