In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film writer Matt Glasby asks, 'Is it just me?... or are Eternal Sunshine 's Joel and Clem a bit obnoxious?'
Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants?” asks Joel (Jim Carrey), looking back over his stormy relationship with Clem (Kate Winslet). Change the word “bored” to “poisonous”, and “feel sorry for” to “move tables to avoid”, and you’re almost there.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s soul-searching 2004 sci-fi Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind introduces its embittered ex-lovers as they’re erasing all memory of each other, thanks to Lacuna (a kind of hipster Total Recall). Because director Michel Gondry’s style is so heightened, and Joel and Clem feel so raw, it’s not always possible to discern what’s truth and what’s trauma. But we’re predisposed to think badly of them, like hearing about a new friend’s nasty ex. And they really don’t help themselves.
It’s not necessary to like people to believe they’re in love, but Joel and Clem aren’t just a terrible match, they’re arguably terrible people. A scraggy, spineless sad-sack, Joel mopes about like a moony teenager (“Why do I fall in love with every woman I see?”), is self-confessedly dull, and scarpers at the first sign of trouble. “So go,” Clem tells him blithely – and he’s off, like a hurt child. Also, Joel has a girlfriend, Naomi, who he’s all but cheating on. Not such a “nice” guy after all, then.
Clem is, if anything, worse – a Manic (perhaps manic depressive) Pixie Nightmare Girl. Unreliable and endlessly self-obsessed, she dyes her hair to seem interesting, then talks about it incessantly. “I apply my personality in a paste,” she states, proudly. In which case, go easy. She also, and it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this, MAKES PEOPLE OUT OF POTATOES – cute, perhaps, in a nine-year-old, creepy when you’re 29. Whether crashing Joel’s car, breaking into beach houses, or kissing new boyfriend Elijah Wood in front of her customers, Clem’s incapable of considering other people’s feelings, yet apparently self-aware. “I’m telling you right off the bat I’m high maintenance,” she informs Joel who should, but doesn’t, run like hell.
Perhaps they both should – they argue all the time, and their public meltdowns are far more convincing than any tender moments they share. Imagine you met them at a party. She’d talk about her hair, her problems, her potatoes; he’d look embarrassed, get jealous. Then, when she’s off flirting with someone else, he’d bore on about comic books all night. You’d be off to Lacuna for the full lobotomy in no time.
Making a romance about two such flawed people is a brave move, and Joel and Clem’s demerits don’t necessarily invalidate the film, but they stand no chance of making each other happy, and every chance of making those around them miserable. “By morning, you’ll be gone,” he tells her, “the perfect ending to this piece-of-shit story.” Actually, the perfect ending would be if they split up, bypassed Lacuna, and spent enough time alone to grow a pair (him), get over themselves (her) and grow up (both of them).
Or is it just me?