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Ten years of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

As the unlikely sci-fi romance turns ten, we look back on the genesis of a Michel Gondry classic

How many filmmakers can claim to be as creative as Michel Gondry? Not only does he fill his films with the kind of flourishes and eccentricities most directors would shy away from, but he somehow manages to pull them off, adding surreal and exciting touches to even the most heartbreaking of stories. It's been ten years since the release of his breakout film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and his work remains as vital and eccentric as ever.

Back in 1993,  Gondry's flair for visual invention attracted the attention of Björk, who asked him to make the video for her first single, "Human Behaviour". The mind-meltingly creative video was a huge success, and he went on to work with the Icelandic pop star a further seven times, while making videos for Neneh Cherry, Massive Attack, and the Rolling Stones.

So it was only a matter of time before Gondry made the crucial jump from music videos to feature films, and his debut, Human Nature, was released in 2001. It didn't make much of a splash, both critically and commercially, but his 2004 follow-up, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, did. The captivating sci-fi romance was a critical hit, proving that the visual flair of his music videos would translate into big screen success after all.  

Eternal Sunshine follows Joel Barish, played by Jim Carrey in an uncharacteristically serious role, a lonely introvert who discovers his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a procedure to remove all trace of their relationship from her memory. Confused and hurt, Joel decides to undergo the same procedure, only to regret his decision and subconsciously fight to stop the process.

In a 2004 interview with Dazed, Gondry said that he never set out to make a sci-fi. "We definitely didn't want to make a science fiction movie," he said. "The procedure that the memory company Lacuna Inc uses is a device to explore someone's feelings of nostalgia, which is uncontrollable. I was reading in a book about the brain that we have the feeling of nostalgia when we think of a memory because the mind knows it is a moment of time that will never appear again."

"I've always been interested in how memories can make us feel good or really hurt us," he continued, "even though they don't really exist. My friend, the artist Pierre Bismuth, had the concept of sending a card to people mentioning they had been erased from the memory of someone they thought they knew. He wanted to study their reaction as part of an art experiment, but he didn't end up doing it. I loved the idea so much that we started to write a story together based on the idea, which Charlie Kaufman then developed into a script."

Kaufman had worked with Gondry before on the script for Human Nature, but he was mostly known for the two films he wrote for Spike Jonze: Being John Malkovich, about a puppeteer who inexplicably discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich; and Adaptation, a supposed adaptation of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief that functions more as an account of Kaufman's struggle to adapt the book into a film than a true interpretation of the story. Both of these films were praised for their originality and innovation, as well as their emotional and intellectual sophistication, but neither were built around an idea as visually complicated as Eternal Sunshine.

On a basic level, Eternal Sunshine is a break-up movie, but neither Kaufman or Gondry were interested in that: they were more interested in the value of memory, and how different a person would be without their regrets. As the title suggests, Kaufman's approach to this idea seems to value regret over ignorance, and the film presents the idea of therapeutic memory erasure as a bad thing: Kaufman has the procedure's inventor and practitioner describe it as a form of "brain damage", while Gondry's presentation of the subconscious effect of the treatment is as nightmarish and traumatic as possible from a visual standpoint.

To make this manifestation of emotional trauma work on screen, Gondry had to be creative with his visual trickery. Instead of relying on CGI, Gondry wanted to use practical methods to create his interpretation of fading memory, and virtually all of the film's effects are done in camera. Forced perspectives, hidden space, spotlighting, unsynchronised sound, split focus and clever continuity editing are used throughout the film to add texture to Joel's memories, allowing Gondry to create the surreal dreamscape needed to make a movie like this work. It's no surprise that Kate Winslet called him a magician. 

And he is a magician. His childlike enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of cinema has made him one of the few true creative geniuses working today, and that's what makes Michel Gondry such a valuable collaborator. It doesn't matter if Björk wants a music video about giant stop-motion teddy bears, a sci-fi diamond heist or a psychedelic installation piece, or if Charlie Kaufman has a script about a man fighting to save the painful memory of his ex girlfriend, because, as long as he enjoys the experimentation, he can, and will, do anything. 

And if his latest work, the video for Metronomy's single "Love Letters", is anything to go by, he hasn't lost that just yet.