Trying to forget about someone you have loved, slept with and touched souls with during a break up is cruelly weird in the first place, like some surreal survival-in-the-future psychic mechanism dreamt up by David Cronenberg; so when Michel Gondry directed Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, things got even weirder. Gondry is one of those directors whose work you recognise straight away. More than that, though, you could run away with the impression that he is like that all the time: in the same sort of way, you could just about believe that Wes Anderson somehow speaks in the font he uses in text panels in his films, Quentin Tarantino showboats around at the breakfast table and speaks like a character from Death Proof, and Michel Gondry sleepwalks around the house like an absent-minded professor, his whole world stop-motion animated. Probably none are true, but Gondry’s subconscious and the dream-mumble world of sleep logic are close to the surface; working with Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there emerges a dream team: Kaufman wrote Being John Malkovich before Eternal Sunshine, and Synedoche, New York afterwards: his work is about the light, shade and dark of the human mind. Eternal Sunshine is a perfect crossroads where Kaufman’s imaginative script meets the stylings of Gondry’s dream-weirdness.
Mood Indigo (2013) is a slightly different kettle of fish. It is a screen adaptation of a novel by Boris Vian from 1947, L’ecume des Jours, the screenplay is by Luc Besson, known for Leon, Nikita and most recently Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson as an accidental drug mule who ends up using her brain to full capacity, mucking around with the space-time continuum, and travelling through time (maybe she hadn’t been immersed in enough weirdness playing Laura in Under the Skin. ) In Mood Indigo, set in Paris, Audrey Tatou plays Chloe, a woman with a water lily growing in her lung, which causes her to fall ill. Colin, played by Romain Duris, is her eventual husband, who takes a number of odd (very odd) jobs to cover the costs of her sickness, including one which sees him in a secretarial team, marshalling hundreds of typewriters on a kind of conveyor belt. Naturellement. Gad Elmaleh does a good turn as Colin’s friend Chick, who is struggling to maintain his own relationship with Alise.
The symbolism of the water lily in Chloe’s lung is as poignant and as delicate as its leaves: would that the crazily dividing cells of a tumour show up on an X-ray as a lovely flower, an extra troubling poignance would be added to the mix, and our relationships with the flora of the fields would be questioned by an unquiet mind, desperate to understand a relationship with something so beautiful which could also kill us. Gondry is in every frame: his ideas show up in the Pianocktail, Colin’s piano/drinks machine hybrid, in the dream-bubble car driven by Chloe and Colin, in the humanised mouse running around. He literally turns up, too, playing Chloe’s doctor.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind didn’t exist as a spikily and remarkable film until 2004 (the title was taken from a line in an Alexander Pope poem), and so it had to be invented by Charlie Kaufman and Gondry – a super-intelligent elegy on the broken relationship, like a buggered-up Leonard Cohen song made visual. Kate Winslet is Clementine, a restless, questing free spirit who runs up against Jim Carrey’s Joel – a foil for her as an introspective soul, old before his time. Thank goodness some cinematic couples who meet on trains end up in failing relationships and have to go to a futuristic memory-deleting company to quell their pain and don’t all end up getting all Before Sunrise on us…The whole film is a glorious but very distorted arc, starting with Joel and Clementine’s “first” meeting on public transport; they have already been through a turbulent relationship with each other, and have both undergone a remarkable procedure courtesy of Lacuna, Inc., a company specialising in the neurological dark arts; they eradicate certain memories from the brains of consenting adults, with broken-hearted former sweethearts being on the top of the list.
Humans are humans, though, and the dystopian procedure is met with massive resistance as it gets underway. Joel struggles to keep his memories of his relationship with Clementine intact as the computer he is hooked up to vacuums them out. Kirsten Dunst is a Lacuna assistant with a cavalier attitude, dancing around in her underwear as Joel’s mind is altered in a domestic setting, out of office hours. Gondry seems to favour parallel stories which, in their own way, act as twisted arrows, pointing to the big picture – Dunst’s character, it turns out later, has had the memory erasure procedure done herself, to quash the painful memories of a relationship with the married Lacuna boss: another person unconvinced that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to haved loved at all. Such is love, and the Kaufman/Gondry take on it in Eternal Sunshine, that sometimes love is a chilly cul-de-sac, without threads tying up neatly – but alternative rays of sunshine can sometimes melt icy issues, and Clementine and Joel, after coming across their records from Lacuna, kick against the deletion of their memories in the end, and decide to start their relationship anew.
Human romantic relationships are a theme in the two films. There’s a heart and soul to them, stuff we can relate to: it’s not all a stop-motion, feature-length version of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. It’s now ten years since the release of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Since then, Michel Gondry has directed all sorts, including The Science of Sleep, in a similar vein to Eternal Sunshine, with bizarre-but-fits-the-film surrealism. There’s also been Be Kind, Rewind in 2008, an enjoyable romp starring Jack Black, and The We And The I (2012), a straight-shooting look at a bunch of high school kids on their last day of term – although there are quirky touches, like the annoucement of which part is which on a billboard in the background. There was also The Green Hornet, a movie about a superhero already in America’s psyche, born in 1930 and turning up in comic books and the like. A lot of critics turned their noses up; Gondry has said in interviews that the main problem was that nerds didn’t agree with his treatment of the character. There’s a cyclical feeling to the Eternal Sunshine/The Science Of Sleep to Mood Indigo journey that a lot of die-hard Gondry fans probably approve of; a lot of them must have come to love and expect the cinematic tropes in the form of things like cellophane oceans.
Time has a climatic influence on love and illness, exerting a kind of reverse greenhouse effect in Mood Indigo, and hailstones in Eternal Sunshine, where the storm sends the two lead characters running for cover as they weave in and out of real life and memory. Time is woven into the narratives of Mood Indigo and Eternal Sunshine inseparably from their stories – in Mood Indigo, the colour drains from the film as the lung-flower grows, and Chloe and Colin’s apartment shrinks (Michel Gondry moved the walls and the ceiling little by little as filming progressed, capturing that increasingly claustrophoboic, desolate atmosphere.) The intricacies of the narrative structure of Eternal Sunshine, many taking place inside the human mind, are so pronounced and dizzying that they’re not light years away from time travel.
A criticism I have seen aimed at Gondry is that surreal elements in his films turn up ex nihilo, most notably, perhaps, in Mood Indigo; where sea creatures flow from taps, and drinks pour from pianos without apparent reason.The structure and ideas behind Eternal Sunshine and 2006’s The Science of Sleep, a twisty-turny film starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane and partly set in the world inside his dreams, might lend themselves more readily to stop-motion quirkiness. But a world without such elements in cinema would be as dull and odd as an art world where nothing but figurative painting passed muster; must everything always be in service of something?
But the surrealism does connect to the hearts of the films as a less obvious artery: the pianocktail, the alarm bell which scuttles around like a beetle and the fish from taps might seem like a cinematic cul-de-sac, but if every visual device in film ended in a plot twist, we’d be dazzled by plot, or else inhabit a very dull cinematic world. Day to day, in our waking lives, our subconscious throws up flotsam and jetsam while we’re standing in the kitchen, thinking about love, or taking the rubbish out. The use of a lovely water lily as something similar to a tumour in Chloe’s lungs uses beauty in a strange, striking way, and gives us a glimpse inside a world where we are we meet our tumours in the outside world, in the flora of the fields. I’d like to think Gondry is hailed as a director of cinema verite in a not too distant parallel world which has a more panoramic view of our minds and our lives. Were things different, we would all be watching films and stuck in lives directed by Richard Curtis.
But Gondry knows he is a bit of a quirk-bag; he’s admitted it in interviews. Out walking with a friend one day, she and I saw a pigeon poo on the pavement. My friend said, “Thinking of what a city pigeon eats, goodness knows what its system thinks of as waste.” In the same sort of way, it’s hard to know what would count as a weird dream round at Michel’s house. Given his inventiveness, his obvious signature style of dream-logic (if you see an alarm bell turning into a scuttling insect in a film, the film probably isn’t directed by Michael Bay) and the interplay of that and plot and themes, it’s hard to know what would see him waking at 4am and questioning the contents of his subconscious. Hopefully he would stop-motion walk around his house, mumble to himself like an eccentric professor, and turn it into another great film which connects the dream world with life.