Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
One could easily describe 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind's' narrative in the traditional sense, but to uncoil the story in such a way diminishes the movie's power. Michel Gondry's film is about love -- plain and simple -- and what it's like to be sick and hysterical and consumed by it. Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are like creatures plucked out of Plato's 'Phaedrus,' which is ostensibly about the madness of love, the guiding of the soul, and notions of beauty amongst other things. Writer Charlie Kaufman tackles the lovers' bittersweet tale with these themes, while inserting ideas about memory, identity, and subjectivity into the mix. Gondry and cinematographer Ellen Kuras manage to embrace these emotional and intellectual realms, while creating an aesthetic bridge between the mind and heart of a troubled relationship. It's nothing short of amazing to watch.
All you really need to know about 'Eternal Sunshine's' story is that after Joel and Clementine break up, they decide to have their memories of each other permanently erased by the Philip K. Dick-esque Lacuna Inc. The company's technicians -- who are experiencing their own bouts of madness in love -- aren't prepared to deal with things when Joel undergoes treatment and starts to subconsciously recall the ups and downs of his stormy relationship. He has a change of heart and struggles to preserve what's left of Clementine in his rapidly fading memory.
The transitions between the naturalism of the couple's mundane everyday and the stylized dramatics surrounding their memories are nearly seamless as the actors ebb and flow between the two worlds. The raw, torn edges that populate the in between remind us that the self-made fiction we create to define our lives helps determine how we translate events -- adding a somewhat comedic subplot while traveling through time with the characters.
Gondry and Kuras carry this feeling over visually through the use of location shooting, dramatic and naturalistic lighting, handheld cameras ("Michel was very interested in calling back to Godard," Kuras told American Cinematographer), and whimsical set design. A Digital intermediate (DI) finish on 'Eternal Sunshine' allowed the filmmaker to play with a filmic, grainy quality as well as the colors, highlights, and shadows. Kuras also toyed with ideas of time and space by using in-camera practical effects to alter scenes, hearkening back to the early days of cinema.
"We didn't want to make it a huge departure from the film's look, but we wanted to signal to the audience that we were in the tunnel of the mind," Kuras stated regarding her lighting techniques for the film's memory scenes. The waking moments are shot with available lighting and a variety of low-wattage light bulbs that were hidden and set on dimmers. The result is a hazy, dreamy quality.
Our frame straddles both sensibilities. There's the same kind of soft focus and natural light we see when Joel wakes up in the beginning of the film, but with a golden heat that captures the mood of the scene. The light almost reads more like an aura -- Clementine's beauty and spirit emanating from the soft glow (her name itself describes the color almost perfectly). Although we know that the scene takes place underneath a duvet, the billowy texture of the quilting resembles clouds -- one of the many visual puns that Kuras and Gondry play with. This is an intimate and passionate moment between two lovers at the birth of their relationship. It's also when Joel realizes he desperately doesn't want to lose sight of Clementine in his mind's eye and simultaneously experiences the ecstasy of the moment and the agony of watching it all slip away.
The shift and interplay between reality and dream-like memory in 'Eternal Sunshine' is just as sophisticated and visually appealing in the movie's quieter moments as it is during its quirkier scenes (think of the childhood kitchen and bathtub/sink). Gondry and Kuras find the perfect tone and balance between the movie's complex themes, unusual narrative and striking visuals to convey the madness of love.
'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is now available on Blu-ray.