#stillshot features a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet
Hmmm. I may have bitten off more than I can chew here.
The problem with a feature such as this is that it requires you to distil the whole meaning of a film into a single shot. So obviously, when I decided to explore the visuals of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I thought to myself ‘great! I’m spoiled for choice!’ But, you see, that’s the problem – I am spoiled for choice. Because when you have a film as stunningly visual and visceral in its approach to cinematography, every single shot becomes loaded with meaning and worthy of individual recognition. And in any other context, this wouldn’t be something that I would complain about – however, having to pick only one shot from this modern masterpiece seems utterly absurd. The whole film, from start to finish, is beautiful.
Michel Gondry’s bittersweet tale takes us on an emotional journey that explores the meaning of love, loss and memory. The central romance plot is made all the more interesting and thought provoking by the sci-fi elements, as estranged protagonists Joel and Clementine decide to erase each other from their memories after a bitter breakup. We are taken through Joel’s mind as he undergoes the brainwashing process, but as the procedure goes on and he revisits all his past memories with Clementine he finds himself falling for her all over again. He tries to save Clem by hiding her in his subconscious, but as he falls deeper into the nightmarish corners of his own psyche it becomes clear that his efforts are futile. Ultimately he fails to preserve her memory, and they meet a second time with no recollection of their past love.
It’s a terrifying glimpse into a world where selective brainwashing is commercialised, and Gondry tackles the subject with absurd humour and heart breaking realism. In order to represent the fragmentation of the human mind, the film takes on a non-linear structure, jumping back and forth between past and present, memory and reality. The film is also packed with beautiful but surreal images – there are beds on beaches, crumbling houses, ever-shifting paradoxes and juxtaposed pieces of Joel’s life all clashing together. It’s strange, fantastical, and utterly representative of how the human mind works.
Of all the beautiful images we are presented with, the scene taking place in the book store really sticks out to me. As Joel‘s memory of Clementine starts to fade, all of the books in the store begin to lose their colours and words. It happens subtly, almost imperceptibly, but as the scene comes to a close we are left with the image of Joel alone in a blank bookstore, all traces of his once joyful memory wiped away. Joel promises his subconscious projection of Clementine that next time their love will be different, and she urges him to try to remember her – however, her disappearance shows the futility of this action. Despite his best efforts, Joel cannot stop his memory from being erased. He is inevitably going to lose her.
I think this image stuck with me for two reasons. The first is the way it symbolises love. Kate Winslet’s Clementine is like an explosion of colour in Joel’s monotonous life. She’s impulsive, outspoken, loud – all of the things that Joel is not. She colours in all the parts of him left blank, and they complete each other in unexpected (and yes, perhaps improbable) ways. His life takes on a technicolour hue when he’s around her, but as soon as she’s gone all the colour leaves the room. It’s one of those things you don’t realise at first (both Carrey and Winslet are so magnetic in their performances that it seems wrong to look away), but as soon as she’s gone there’s a profound sense of emptiness, like something absolutely intrinsic is missing.
It’s true what they say – you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. And I think that’s probably true of the majority of love affairs, as lives intertwine and paths cross over. She becomes an essential part of him, she colours his world, and once she leaves the world becomes blank, mundane and cold. I think Joel’s face as he stares into the blank space where Clementine used to be really says it all.
It also speaks volumes about the nature of memory. While some things we recall can appear as clearly to us as if they happened moments ago, other details fade. Joel remembers exactly what Clementine wore at the bookstore, and he remembers every word of her speech, and yet the colours and words around him pale into insignificance, as if they never existed in the first place. When Joel realises he’s about to lose this moment forever, the last of the colour drains away from the room, and we’re left with a memory removed of all vibrancy and meaning. Gondry’s manipulation of the frame, which is now half empty due to Clem’s absence, perfectly illustrates the fleeting nature of memory – we cannot truly hold on to every aspect of the past, no matter how much we may try to. Each of our memories are coloured, changed and warped by our own perceptions, and true mental representation of a moment becomes impossible to achieve.
My choice of still shot may not be the first image that pops to mind when others think of this movie, and I’m sure that many would argue that there are better scenes that encapsulate Joel’s story and the feel of the movie. But perhaps that’s the point. Our memories, thoughts and feelings are all subjective, as is our interpretation of the film. Although Joel’s experience of brainwashing is the only one we are subjected to, it is clear that his experience is heavily shaped by his own psyche and personality. He dwells on particular moments in his life that to others would seem insignificant, but they are central to who he is and how he feels. We do not know what kind of process Clem would have gone through, and we don’t know what memories would have seemed the most significant in her mind, but there is no doubt that her interpretation of events would have been very different from the perspective projected by Joel.
This reflects back on the audience – whilst the image of the colour drained library lingers with me, it will be different with everyone who watches it. And that’s the magic of this film. Memory, and how it’s shaped by time and experience, informs not just the narrative and characterisation portrayed in the film, but also how we as an audience respond to it and remember it. And truly, I think that that is very beautiful indeed.
Mel c is the Deputy Editor of FILM, THEATRE & TV at PTL. She uses this fact as an excuse to devote her life to Netflix. When Mel actually leaves her flat, she studies English Literature and History chez Edinburgh. She enjoys long walks, good company, and has a profound weakness for chocolate, tea and coffee. Ply her with any of these things, and you will buy her friendship.
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