Patterns for Clarity, Narrative for Style. An Analysis of the Cinematic Techniques used in ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry uses patterns enhanced by the cinematic techniques of Joel’s memories to make sense of the complicated narrative he presents. With so many themes, elements of symbolism, and the creative structure, these patterns help to guide the viewer and reinforce the lesson he wants the viewer to take from Joel’s story. Gondry allows the viewer to sympathize with Joel and even encourages them to contemplate their own memories. Joel strips away his good, bad, and ugly memories, revealing a sense of regret that the viewer is then encouraged to respond to. Slowly and meticulously, Gondry uncovers the underlying sorrow (through mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and editing), and palpable sense of tragedy (through the circular narrative) in Joel’s memories to show the viewer the tragedy of love and loss.

Apparent throughout the film, Gondry uses patterns in the mise-en-scène and cinematography to keep the viewer in tune with Joel’s thought process and mentality. Even when it is not a memory, the focus is still on Joel and his reactions to the people and the world around him. At the beginning, Joel and Clem introduce themselves to each other on a train, after which, Clem switches seats to be across from Joel instead of in front of him. Simultaneously, the camera angle changes, and the shot becomes crowded with Clem’s blurred out head and Joel in clear focus behind her. Though Clem is the one talking, Joel remains the focal point, attracting the viewer’s attention because of the deep focus.

Train scene. Joel in deep focus. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004).

Even in the real world of the film, Gondry keeps the viewer in Joel’s head space as to form a connection that is necessary to feel the full effect of his emotional manifestation. Once introduced to Joel’s memory, mise-en-scène and cinematography are used together to form visual effects that make a clear message to the audience about what Joel is experiencing. The first memory that is erased is Joel’s most recent conversation about Clem, which he has with a neighbor in the lobby of his apartment building. To give context, Gondry starts with a shot of Joel still lying in his bed, listening to the conversation in the lobby. The next shot is of him scared and confused as the face of his neighbor is blurred out behind him and the memory is erased. By keeping Joel as the sole inhabitant of the frame who is in focus, the viewer is forced to pay attention to his reactions and connect to the emotions he expresses. However, at some point Joel recognizes that he may be making a mistake and attempts to hide Clem in the deepest parts of his memory. Gondry takes advantage of this to incorporate creative elements of cinematography and mise-en-scène, and add a little humor. Joel takes Clem to a memory he had as a kid where Clem embodies one of Joel’s neighbors. While she has causal conversation with his mom, adult Joel who is now child-sized, whines about not getting attention. Even as a child, the viewer is taken into how Joel would think. He was desperate for attention and this remains a common theme in his adult life. Even though he is the smallest body in frame, he still appears to take up the most room in the scene, figuratively speaking, because of his commanding, obnoxious presence.

Joel’s Childhood scene. Perspective manipulation. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004).

Unfortunately, this scene only briefly interrupts the chain of tragedy the viewer sees in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The same pattern we see in the first memory persists throughout; Joel remains the integral part of the scene to maintain the structure of the frame, while everything else around him blurs then disappears. For example: when people’s faces are blurred out in the bookstore, when people disappear in the train station, and when Joel’s childhood house becomes old and falls apart. Through mise-en-scène and cinematography, the viewer is taken into the chaos of a lost man’s mind.

Joel’s memory being erased. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004).

Along with mise-en-scène and cinematography, Gondry uses techniques in the sound design and editing to embed themes throughout the film. These themes keep the audience engaged and give them something familiar to recognize as they maneuver through the complicated narrative. Gondry employs sound to construct a barrier between the real world and Joel’s memory. In the first disruption the viewer encounters while inside Joel’s memory, the scene cuts back into the real world as Patrick is scrambling on the floor with the machine. He has caused a disturbance by moving too quickly and jolts the viewer out of Joel’s consciousness. We also see this same technique with a doorbell and a phone ringing later in the film. Each instance has the same effect, creating context for the viewer when they are in or out of Joel’s memories. This helps them orient themselves in the storyline. Gondry also uses a soundtrack to display a sub-layer of Joel’s emotions. He uses the same classical instrumental scoring to suggests Joel’s anxiousness being in his own mind but having no control. Theme music such as this and the music we hear at the beginning of the film help to create a tone for each scene that invites the viewer into Joel’s head. At other times we hear songs, such as Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime by Beck, that are connected to Joel’s memory with Clem. As the memory erasing progresses these songs begin to sound like broken records, which suggests Joel is losing his grip on his memories of Clem.

Much like how the songs create mood and set a tone for the film, the colors and editing do so as well. Gondry uses a grey and blue filter to eclipse the scenes when Joel experiences the feelings of loss, depression, and loneliness. Whereas, once we get to the best memories he has with Clem, the colors are as vibrant and lively as Clem’s red hair. With this continuity, Gondry creates an easy template for the viewer to acknowledge while making sense of where in Joel’s memory they are at any given point in the film.

Though the patterns in the cinematic elements keep the viewer on track, the circular narrative is what presents Joel’s eternal tragedy and purpose of the film. There are so many moving parts and layers that it is difficult to understand everything the first time through. I found that each time I watched it, I gained a different perspective or recognized a new plot device that added meaning to my previous interpretation. Not everything is presented in chronological order, so it is essential to retain information as it comes. The film begins by prompting many questions to the viewer such as, “why is Joel so upset after his first date with Clem?”, “who are these men entering Joel’s house?”, “when did this happen?”. As the viewer gains more knowledge of what is going on, Joel loses his. He forgets as the viewer learns. This enhances the effect of the cinematic patterns, and places the viewer in the same realm of anxiousness and urgency to save Clem once Joel experiences regret. In the end, Joel’s tragedy is sealed with one last request from an ending he creates in his last memory with Clem. Clem tenderly whispers “Meet me in Montauk” to Joel. Out of context this makes no sense, but Gondry’s circular narrative makes this a pinnacle event in the plotline.

“Meet me in Montauk” scene. (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004).

This is the moment that will continually reset the circular narrative, thus designing Joel’s eternal tragedy of love and loss. The circular narrative makes the viewer stay engaged as they search for answers. This, consequently, enhances the response they have to Joel’s tragedy of love and loss.

While engulfed in the circular narrative of the film, the viewer searches for the cinematic patterns that act as landmarks to keep them orientated while maneuvering through the complex storyline. The mise-en-scène and cinematography address the focus of the viewer. They connect with these elements because they are easily recognizable and impossible to ignore. The sound and editing are the underlying elements that the viewer responds to without consciously addressing their themes and patterns in the moment. The narrative packages Joel’s tragedy for the viewer in a uniquely wrapped ensemble of what, at first, seem to be independent events. Later, the viewer connects the dots and rearranges the narrative chronologically, only to be disappointed by the sad truth they have just revealed to themselves. Unlike Joel, the audience cannot forget the bad times, they are stuck with them. Joel faces true remorse only after he eliminates the bad memories of Clem. He feels the same way he did at the beginning of their relationship because he genuinely has no bad memories of their love. Gondry creates a piece of art that engages the viewer’s senses while also forcing them to acknowledge and reflect on the manifestation of the tragedy of love and loss.