He may be French and aesthetically ambitious, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry shares more with early Disney than with France’s new new wavers such as Gaspar Noé (whom he admires), Catherine Breillat (whom he doesn’t), or Olivier Assayas (whose demonlover he claims politely to have missed). Gondry turns nouveau tech and cinema’s reality-bending capacities toward an imaginary saturated with primary colors—childlike, surreal, and often joyful. Genius of the music video, he also pioneered “bullet time” for a Smirnoff’s commercial long before it became a Hollywood staple.
In conversation he returns to childhood (and time travel) obsessively: “When I was young, in effect I was really looking, my vision was wider and more detailed, it felt more vivid. As I grow older I see that it goes a little bit through a window that is more dirty.”
This back-looking hypervisuality defines his style. Though not as temporally baffling as his best videos, Eternal Sunshine tracks through a rifted terrain where time is out of joint and moments gone down the river of real time can be revisited and perhaps rescued. Unlike Noé’s bad trip backward, tragedy isn’t irreversible; despite the story’s aching melancholy, Gondry hasn’t the heart of a tragedian. “When I went to Hollywood I was thinking I would do a movie like Back to the Future: It’s technical and there’s a good exploration of the paradox of time, good irony about the future, nice comment on society, but it’s not taking itself seriously. I don’t like movies like The Matrix, very complex with a lot of rules, everybody is having attitude. Christopher Lloyd feeds the car with trash . . . it’s the idea that in a dream you can make things work by the will.”
Dreams, they say, are the mind narrativizing an unmanageable mass of detail, memory, imagination, desire. In this regard Gondry is the dreamiest director on offer, making stories out of an excess of seeing. The camera’s action is always childlike, playful; seriousness and adulthood belong to the clock, through which gilded youth relentlessly leaks away. “When you are a child,” he tells me, “you are more receptive to the outside world because basically your brain has more space and you capture more detail in everything. But as you grow older you compare all the new information to what you have already, and so the percentage of what comes in becomes less and less. It’s the same idea that time seems to pass faster when you grow older.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind