Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Reviewed in March 2004
Top Ten List: #1 of 2004 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #1 of 2004 (world premieres)
Click Here for the Top 100 Films of the 00s
Director: Michel Gondry. Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Deirdre O'Connell, Jane Adams, David Cross, Thomas Jay Ryan. Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman (based on a screen story by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth).


After the Rehearsal
aka Efter repetitionen
Reviewed in March 2004
Director: Ingmar Bergman. Cast: Erland Josephson, Lena Olin, Ingrid Thulin, Nadja Palmstjerna-Weiss. Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman.


Photo © 2004 Focus Features
After the Rehearsal is Ingmar Bergman's own little Tempest in a teapot: a "minor" work, perhaps, but also an inventive, interestingly ambivalent, and highly self-conscious swan song by a man who has spent his life in the theater. Henrik Vogler, the Bergman surrogate played by perennial alter ego Erland Josephson, is a 70-ish director who now likes a nap between morning and evening rehearsals. He is just waking up from one such nap (or is he, really?) as After the Rehearsal opens. What follows for the next hour and twenty minutes is both simple and complicated: a young actress, Anna Egerman, intrudes upon his rest-hour under the pretense of seeking a bracelet she has lost somewhere on the stage set. It is clear to Henrik that what she really seeks is extra prompting for her budding performance in his production of Strindberg's A Dream Play, but soon, even that pretense fades: six minutes into the movie, Anna is already rapt with angry, Bergmanesque invective against her late, hated mother Rakel, a dypsomaniacal actress with whom Henrik had an affair when she, too, starred for him in an earlier Dream Play. (The production Henrik is now directing is the fifth of what has apparently been an illustrious career.) Is this why Anna has made this return to the set, to rebuke her privately cruel mother in the face of her former lover? To rebuke Henrik himself, maybe, for having troubled her parents' rocky marriage still further, or for indulging in passion with such a vulgar, unworthy partner? Is Anna jealous? Does she have her own romantic designs on Henrik? Does he on her? He has cast her in the plum role of the Daughter of Indra despite having only seen her perform, badly, in another stage show and, indifferently, in a throwaway movie.

All of After the Rehearsal plays out on the skeletal set of A Dream Play, and in a related style to the opening scenes of Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, it is hard to discern whether we are watching theater artists bumming around a set or else a kind of dressed-down performance: is this a dream, a dream play, or just another day at the office? Our uncertainty increases with the arrival of After the Rehearsal's third character, a flamboyant, middle-aged actress who resents the small role afforded her in this Dream Play. We hear her referred to as Rakel, and we gather that she missed out on a a larger part because the financial underwriters were nervous about her reputed alcoholism. Have we, without any flashy formal cue, entered a scene from the past—surely this is Anna's reviled mother, now raging her way into the present-day Dream Play? As the camera pans back to Anna, she has been replaced by a 10-year-old version of herself, outfitted in the same red sweatsuit as her older self, cowed by her mother's grandiosity just as the older Anna is paralyzed by the memory of the same. Even with this seeming revenant onstage, however, Henrik is still played by the aging Josephson and hasn't changed at all. Later, the older, familiar Anna played by Lena Olin returns, with the Rakel we thought was a figment still walking about her.

Despite the deep-seated resentments and mortal weariness of all three characters, After the Rehearsal is not the dirge that, say, Winter Light or Cries and Whispers is, sublime dirges though those films may be. The characters venture some flirtations and seemingly affectionate jibes, and I swear I saw them smile from time to time. Lena Olin, the last of Bergman's great discoveries, appearing here four years before she scorched the screen to embers in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, even manages a few chuckles and kisses before After the Rehearsal is over. The temporal blurrings in Rehearsal are not the high-modernist crises of Bergman's Persona but the nimble sleights-of-hand of a confident professional, still flexing the medium and testing out some new tricks more than forty years into his career. Which is to say, this is hardly light material, but it's pretty frisky stuff for Bergman, and in one of those moviegoing coincidences you can't really plan for, it turns out that Bergman's frisky ain't too far from Charlie Kaufman's melancholy. I saw After the Rehearsal the morning after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind bowed, and though both movies stand majestically on their own, the close conjunction of these screenings showed each to even better advantage.

You gotta hand it to these whippersnappers: Kaufman, second-time director Michel Gondry, wunderkind cinematographer Ellen Kuras, and their spry and inspired cast have made an even better film than Bergman's (though the tired wisdom and subtle defiance of expectations that make Rehearsal so memorable could never have been achieved by newer-minted talents). Critics and audiences have already welcomed Eternal Sunshine so warmly that one hardly feels a need to recapitulate its famous, byzantine plot; to keep things brief and reasonably clear, a Long Island nebbish tries to relive and preserve a capsized relationship that both he and his girlfriend have attempted, pseudo-scientifically, to "erase." This is a giddy, savory premise, justly celebrated; equally famed, and deservedly so, are the pristine photography, crisp but bold cutting, an exquisite tonal balance between the jocular and the mournful, a strong performance by Jim Carrey, and a stellar, flawlessly detailed one by Kate Winslet. We are well into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before we realize what a crazy kaleidoscope of memory, projection, and fantasy we have entered; we are long out of the theater before we're able to shake the tugging, altogether remarkable mood of rueful romanticism that nimbly encases all the hilarity. So much local color has been ingeniously tucked into each scene that the film's high concept, which by all rights should command our attention from first frame to last, is allowed to build in stages and even, from time to time, to fade into the background of some kookily eclectic character studies and mind-bending effects. Character arcs leap, plunge, spiral, and tie themselves into knots, yet somehow they still emerge as definable arcs, with real emotional punch. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is either the most side-splitting sad movie Hollywood has ever made, or else the most plaintive comedy, I'm not sure which.

What I am sure of, though it has been less widely remarked, is that Charlie Kaufman, among so many other things, is one of the modern American screen's best scribes of the professional world. The fantastic bravado of Being John Malkovich and the restless, delirious energy of Adaptation steal most of the press, but anchoring both films is a shrewd and well-textured instinct for the experience of the working adult: the cramped writer, the swamp-town dilettante, the agents and talent developers of the Hollywood studio system, the plaintive sidewalk puppeteer, the reluctant file clerk, the actor of unlikely celebrity. The shrunken, ungainly office of Lestercorp in Malkovich, an ever-renewable visual gag, is also an indispensable pretext for everything that happens in the film: the portal into Malkovich partially serves as a silly simile for the buried wonder we all hope we'll find among the routines of our working lives. The office, too, is the only possible context for bringing together such disparate characters as John Cusack's temp, Catherine Keener's lipsticked mercenary, and Orson Bean's deranged CEO. Lots of screenplays would bend themselves over backwards thinking of ways to get these characters together in the same room, and though Malkovich's script bends in plenty of other ways, it smartly knows when it doesn't need to. A cruddy, grey office job is more than enough to unite the craziest people (not to mention their zoophile wives and addle-brained assistants), and more than enough to spark the most desperate, immoral dreams of escape.

By contrast, it is interesting that the weakest of Kaufman's produced screenplays, for George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is hamstrung around the problem of Chuck Barris not having a particular job: amidst all the speculations and pretenses of how he makes his living (game show host? CIA operative?) there is nothing onto which the film can hang the character's humanity, his experience of daily life. When you think about all the comic screenwriters (Woody Allen, Nora Ephron), for whom the characters' jobs are the wispiest of attributions, overheard but very rarely seen—did you even remember that Harry Burns is a political consultant, and Sally Albright is a journalist?—the marked attention that Kaufman gives to workspaces and careers, and the diverse emotions and encounters that arise therein, is a truly distinguishing mark.

Photo © 1984 Personafilm/Cinematograph AB
This attention to professional trades is much less typical of Bergman, whose characters are frequently wrestling with the theological and philosophical questions which tend to be obviated by day-to-day needs and routines. After the Rehearsal, though, is a stirring exception, and it is this intimacy with the working mind, just as much as their shared interest in temporal stunts and layered realities, that makes After the Rehearsal and Eternal Sunshine such fascinating companions. Joel Barish, the Carrey figure, is literally running from his job in the first sequence of Sunshine, which in a Kaufman film is about as clear a sign as you can get of a life gone off the rails. In a similar way, when we find out that Winslet's Clementine has been a rainbow-haired "book slave" at Barnes & Noble for four years, courted by her boyfriends in that fluorescent-bulbed maze, we already feel like we get the character. (It helps, too, that Kuras knows exactly how to light it, and Gondry uses the familiar space quite brilliantly in several set-piece sequences.)

Where things really get interesting is in the movie's thorough engagement with Lacuna, Inc., the fabulated outfit that wipes the memories of disastrous relationships from the minds of its paying customers. Before the plot even embarks on all of its hairpin turns and poignant reversals, there's an underlying rightness to Kaufman's conceit that purging the memories of loves gone awry is something that modern lonelyhearts would gladly pay to do. After all, if some people are pro's at fucking up their relationships, why shouldn't others stake a claim as pro's of sweeping them under the cerebral carpet? As Kate Winslet's Clementine says of the invisible gnomes who, somewhere around a board-room table, are naming all of our hair-dyes, "Someone has that job." Still, rather than make this nutty outfit a pre-given plot device, as a less ambitious film would probably do, Kaufman has thought through all the ins and outs that such a profession would entail: of course the subjects would have to be treated in their own homes, to avoid confusion. Of course this means that, for the technicians, half the fun of "treating" these losers would be knocking them out and rummaging through their apartments, even partying over their unconscious bodies. The sheer span and sincerity of Kaufman's attentions are marvelous, especially for a writer whom people tend to misread as a self-indulgent egghead. Characters who could so easily serve as simple functionaries of the Lacuna enterprise turn out to have major subplots in the movie. The nerdy black glasses on Mark Ruffalo's face would constitute his entire character in 90% of Hollywood comedies; here, it's only the first step into yet another human being, albeit a daffy one. And in the larger picture, the world of skittish commitments and hungrily desired social amnesia which propel this script and all its characters are a richer, sager essay on the blinkered qualities of modern life than you're likely to find in many more ostensibly "political" films.

In some ways, of course, the theater can be just as escapist an enterprise as Lacuna, Inc., though the people who work in it are much less likely to see it this way than audiences are. After the Rehearsal isn't attempting anything like the full canvas of theatrical labor and superstructure that you find in, say, Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, but nonetheless, its status as an absorbing, life-defining occupation is just as foregrounded in After the Rehearsal as are the more surreal industries of the Kaufman film. Henrik excels at his craft, and Anna is just learning hers; the contrast of wisdom and greenness is crucial to the movie, though so too is the contrast between the skeptical self-scrutiny of the elderly and the bullheaded conviction of the young. Which is to say, they both want a little of what the other has, and the movie's sympathies embrace them both. By meeting these characters in their professional world—and the stage, to be sure, is an especially self-revealing one—we are able to sense all these dynamics almost at an instant, though as I mentioned earlier, we aren't quite sure if it's the "real" life of these characters we are watching.

Part of the film's work, of course, is to neutralize this question. Don't we always perform for each other, even in private life? Isn't there always truth in every stage performance? There's nothing that Henrik or Anna or Rakel can't analogize to theater, no opportunity for them to deliver an unstudied gesture or a spontaneous speech. Their arguments are all pitched in the language of dramatic critique: Anna never drops her mask; Rakel is melodramatic; Henrik's former rival for Rakel was clearly a dud, because look what an awful botch he made of Brecht! The notion that social life, even intimate life, is at many levels a performance, an impersonation, is hardly breaking news, but the gravitas of After the Rehearsal lends new resonances to the idea—the film professes a persuasive, palpable knowledge that theater is draining, it's magical, it feeds you and yet will outlive you. Ask any one of these three people what most defines their lives, and I suspect they would all cite their relationship to the stage. How many professions incite the same kind of obsessional love, the same blurring of the real and the imagined or desired? In many ways, this is the key question that After the Rehearsal poses, not just to us but, we can hardly doubt, to its own creator.

In keeping with this philosophy of the performed life, it doesn't seem obvious which part of After the Rehearsal constitutes the actual rehearsal, as opposed to the "real" performance. Given the pronounced cycles of repetition in Henrik's life—the five Dream Plays, the mother-and-daughter affairs (among so many others)—one leaves the movie with a sense that Henrik has always rehearsed the same scenarios over and over. The film does not judge him harshly for this; he is clearly not presented to us as a fool who cannot learn from mistakes, or as a lech who cannot be deterred from baser stirrings. It is part of Henrik's professional gift to return, to re-explore, to turn Strindberg like a diamond in the light in order to reveal some new glimmer or gleam, and it is likely that he holds and turns his life in the same way, like a jeweler, though this gift surely comes with its own high prices. Henrik spends his life in rehearsal, which might sound sad, especially to theater artists who know how alternately flammable and boring rehearsal really is. But life, too, is a rehearsal, which makes "after the rehearsal" (you guessed it!) a death image. I am amazed and impressed that the artist who gave the cinema its most literal, somber image of death in 1957's The Seventh Seal is able to revive his favorite theme in such subtler, gentle form more than a quarter-century later, when the idea must have loomed more soberingly in his mind.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind features only one death: that of Joel's and Clementine's relationship, and after all the breakups I've seen at the movies, I was shocked at how anguished this one seemed, no less so because of the omnipresent humor, and no less so because the relationship was never less than fractious, inconsistent, often ugly, even when it worked. Eternal Sunshine, too, is full of rehearsals that might turn out to possibly be the real thing. We aren't always sure of the "reality" of these characters' lives, and they aren't, either. This is a tough revelation for those who think they have discovered a secret to happiness, only to find out that happiness may be an illusion, and that for all life's appearance of endless variety (brilliantly conjured in the film's bouncy logic and boisterous mise-en-scène), there may only be one or two recurrent paths that a person ever walks and rewalks and rewalks in life.

That's a heart-stopping message, almost tragic from one point of view, except that the final scene of Eternal Sunshine seems to show us the characters making a choice to accept their own routines, to own up to their singular eccentricities, to recognize that walking the path in the good, loving company of fellow strugglers is a fine way to live. Or, the final exchange could just as easily be read as another breakup, with two people finally realizing that it's "okay" to say no to a relationship that isn't going to work, without trying to extract some false idea of happiness from it, and without having to pay to forget you had the relationship in the first place. It is a testiment to the movie's emotional sincerity, fiercely maintained throughout all the comic shenanigans, that both alternatives are fully plausible, and the possible contradiction between them feels true, instead of just a screenwriting parry. Eternal Sunshine has moments of side-splitting comedy, priceless one-liners and non sequiturs ("Technically it is brain damage," "I am making a birdhouse!"), but it also has a mature, straightforward poignancy. This is the aspect of the movie I will most remember, and I have already paid multiple times to remember it again. Though After the Rehearsal marks a deft near-end to a great career, Eternal Sunshine is just as rare and precious a thing: an exceptional near-beginning to several great careers, and living proof that 2004 will boast at least one great film. Grades: Rehearsal: B+; Sunshine: A


Academy Award Nominations and Winners for Eternal Sunshine:
Best Actress: Kate Winslet
Best Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth

Golden Globe Nominations for Eternal Sunshine:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Kate Winslet
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Jim Carrey
Best Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman

Other Awards for Eternal Sunshine:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay (Kaufman, Gondry, and Bismuth)
National Board of Review: Best Original Screenplay (Kaufman); Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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