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Difficulties of Relationship in 'Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind'

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A person can come into your life when you least expect it and turn your world upside down. At first, they may seem like they are the best thing that could happen to you but then slowly what was once a dream relationship turns into something toxic. Something that turns both individuals into a person they don’t even recognize anymore. So, what if in this situation the person could be erased from your memory as if they never existed? Michel Gondry explores this idea in the science fiction romance titled Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). This work has been heavily appraised for its use of visual cinematographic for this time period in movie development while also being an independent film. Gondry uses techniques like special effects, like when the house on the shore disappears, or the use of flashbacks that blur one’s perception of time. However, it is the lighting techniques throughout the whole film that helps Gondry to establish the chaos of a relationship and all the past events that encompass it.

Before delving into a deeper scene analysis, it is important to provide a brief summary for a better understanding of the film as a whole. The two main characters that the plot follows are Clementine and Joel. The film starts with them meeting at Montauk when Joel decides to skip work one day. Clementine is more outgoing and moodier whereas Joel is more introverted yet still has a good sense of humor. This leads to a second date, but this isn’t an actual second date because they have been down this dating road before. Then the storyline shoots forward after an argument and Joel sees Clementine later working when her new “boyfriend” is visiting her. After this Joel visits his friends and finds a letter from a medical office saying Clementine chose to undergo a procedure to erase Joel completely from her memory. This sends Joel’s mental state spiraling and leads him to want this procedure done as well. The large remainder of this film takes the viewer through memories of the two of them together and what led up to the argument that was mentioned at the beginning of the film. Throughout these memories, we see good ones of them together but mostly them arguing for example how Joel isn’t spontaneous enough or how he doesn’t agree that she can raise a child. But toward the middle of Joel’s time “asleep,” he starts to realize there are good times and he still wants to remember Clementine. The whole decision to undergo the procedure is a huge mistake but he cannot wake himself. The memories then become Joel trying to get Clem to run from the memories that are deteriorating around them. They go back to memories she doesn’t belong in. For example, he is a baby, or him having to be humiliated to kill a bird with a hammer. Yet after all this work it is still not enough and the team from the office, that we get glimpses of from time to time and can hear voices in Joel’s memory, is able to pull Joel back to where he is supposed to be in the process. They come to realize that they can’t fight it anymore and just enjoy the time they have left together in these memories. He wakes up after the process is complete. One of the people for the company turns out to be dating Clementine and she shows back up at the end of the story stressed and confused because things don’t feel “right”. Toward the end of the movie, the secretary learns that she has also had her memory wiped and gets mad and sends everyone’s tapes back. Clementine gets hers and so does Joel. They hear about their past together that they forgot but choose to try again anyway despite the clear incompatibility. This psychological science fiction owes a lot of the emotions of chaos in a relationship to the director's use of light throughout the film. A good example of this is the scene where Joel starts to see the good memories start slip away as well.

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Around 52:24 the first memory that can be seen in this part of the film is Joel and Clementine under a blanket. They are discussing a troubling memory Clem is having of her childhood doll and feeling ugly so by changing the way the doll looked she believed somehow that would change her too. The lighting that one can see here is a form of soft lighting where there is not a whole lot of shadow. The lighting gives off a fuzzy image of our two characters' faces while illuminating them just enough to see their emotions. The technique of having the light source come through the blanket helps created this appeal. Soft lighting is often used in romantic stories. Gondry uses this lighting here to show the emotional and intimate connection of Clementine sharing this moment with Joel. The light then fades and a picture overlays and then it cuts to him trying to crawl his way back up the blanket. The viewer can barely see the face of Joel, but the spotlight illuminates his hands that are gripping the blanket as he thinks “Let me keep this memory”. This moment is crucial to the film because it is when the viewer can see the change in how Joel feels toward the situation. The spotlight technique is used here to show an emphasis just how hard he is going to have to try able to hold onto these memories of her. Then it switches to them out on the frozen lake and the music starts to become fuzzy and Joel says to Clem “I am just happy. I have never felt that before.” All of these moments of happiness between Joel and Clementine seem to be in a more natural muted light and it's more calming but every time there is a use of the spotlight there is an implied sense of panic and need to view Joel’s changing emotions. Then it cuts to the train station where the viewer sees them lying on the ground but with a spotlight from above while people bustle around them. This is very similar to the focus of the scene in the Chien Andalou with one person in the middle while the others bustle around him. Also, the use of the spotlight here gives a large amount of black around the two characters. This could represent that the darkness and the forgetting of the memories are looming closer than Joel thinks. And finally, the camera switches to show Joel’s point of view with the spotlight on Clementine as she is pulled into the black. This dramatic end to the series of memories shows that Clementine will fade into the darkness of Joel’s memories quickly if he doesn’t do something. This series of events motivated Joel to try to take control of the situation as best as he could.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind provides an incredible mise en scene in order to portray the difficulties of a relationship that started to spiral out of control. But it also shows the struggle of trying to forget that person while separating the good memories to keep. One can see here with the love between Joel and Clementine that love is complex. In an attempt to point out some of those key moments, the spotlight is used. Gondry as well used soft lightening and natural lightening as well to continue to give the viewer the intimate feeling that these memories had on these characters.

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Difficulties of Relationship in ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/difficulties-of-relationship-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/
“Difficulties of Relationship in ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/difficulties-of-relationship-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/
Difficulties of Relationship in ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/difficulties-of-relationship-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Difficulties of Relationship in ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/difficulties-of-relationship-in-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind/
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