Detailed Analysis on the Cinematography in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


An individual detailed analysis of the style, editing techniques Mise-en-scene and cinematography in the film “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”. Michael Gondry’s Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004) is not your typical Hollywood rom-com. Its cinematic style is very original and by far out of the ordinary for its genre. The use of techniques and the way the film is produced is the reason why it is so memorable. The non-linear narrative is based around a middle-aged guy who falls in love with a woman, who, after a while into their relationship decides to erase every single memory and feeling towards him.

The story is told in flashbacks that slowly reveal the time and space the couple spent together and all the events that made up their relationship. Silvey states that “The innovative use of narrative, mise en scene, cinematography, editing and the soundtrack in the film all serve to convey the tenderness, confusion, miscommunication, pain and hope that accompany romantic endeavours. ” [SILVEY 2009: 139]. I will be discussing and critically analyzing the exact same concepts as above in my argument and how they contribute to such a stylistic storyline. I will also be comparing techniques used in this film to such ones in other films.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is a mind-blowing story about a man called Joel Barish who finds himself in a life-changing situation when he accidentally discovers that his long-term girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski has undergone a brain procedure which erases someone from the mind, in this case clementine erases Joel from her memory, leaving her with nomemorieswhat so ever of him. He decides the best way to cure his broken heart is to undergo the same process and erase Clementine for good. But as his memory loss commences he finds himself trapped in his own memories, watching them as they disappear.

Half way through he realizes he no longer wants to erase Clementine and tries his very best to keep hold of his living memories. The style of editing in Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is undoubtedly the most recognizable aspect that separates this film from a ‘normal’ love story. It has the typical love narrative moments but the way it is pieced together with its innovative narrative style is what puts it at a whole new level of originality. The film begins just like any other straightforward storyline would, but as the film continues it becomes clear to the audience that it is a non-linear narrative.

For the first couple of scenes the film doesn’t give away any signs that it is beginning with the end of the film as their are no use of flashbacks or unusual techniques involved, but when Joel goes to sleep you realize that he is watching himself in his own dream, like he is having a flashback of himself talking to his neighbour about valentines day just hours after he had gone to sleep. He seems anxious and uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, especially when his neighbour mentions Clementine’s name.

This is the point where you start to realize that the film is possibly in a non-linear narrative as his neighbour mentioned Clementine being Joel’s girlfriend but the audience have only seen the couple together as friends and at the start of theirfriendship. From then on the film is told in flashbacks from the memory of Joel Barish’ mind as he makes the decision to have the same procedure as Clementine did. As he watches his memories of Clementine fade away he realizes he is still in love with her and no longer wants to erase her so he tries everything he can to stop the procedure and keep the memories alive.

The story of Joel and Clementine is then told through Joel’s memory erasing but it feels as if the story is being told backwards as each memory fades away. Objects, locations and people just disappear in front of Joel’s and the audience’s eyes. The editing in the film makes the storyline more complex then it actually is. As Silvey writes “It plays a crucial part in the construction of the circular narrative” [SILVEY 2009: 1]. The misleading techniques used when Joel’s memories start to disappear give the audience an understanding of the confusion and frustration that Joel is going through.

There are plenty of examples of continuity editing in Eternal sunshine, both temporal and spatial are used. Discontinuity is used throughout the memory erasing scenes with the deliberate use of ellipsis as Joel relives his memories in flashbacks. Some of the shots from Joel’s memories are put together in a montage edit; this is another example of discontinuity editing. There are multiple uses of crosscutting in the film, which is when there are a series of shots that keep cutting back and forth from one shot to another shot, this occurs in a lot of the flashback scenes.

Also there are several jump cuts, which brakes the ”continuity edit” as in order to achieve a smooth and non-noticeable cut from one shot to another the camera must move 30 degrees or more to attain the continuity in the movement of shots. But a jump cut is deliberately shot without using the 30-degree rule. Therefore when you put the shots together they make a “jump” affect and it brakes up the continuity of the edit. In this case, Gondry intentionally directed the crosscutting and jump cuts in order to express Joel’s reactions to the procedure.

At the beginning of the film the editing picks up a rhythm and runs smoothly, giving a perfect example of continuity editing, but as the film goes on it begins to switch between continuity and discontinuity as the edit balances out the changes between reality and the distorted memories. There are a variety of editing techniques that are used in the film, the use of Jump cuts, fast paced scenes and the different varieties of camera angels give a real sense of Joel’s life. The purpose of the variation and different techniques is to deliver the feelings of emotion, confusing, frustration and regret that Joel is experiencing in his memory loss.

The memory erasing begins with Joel’s most recent memory spent with Clementine; it then works its way backwards ending with his memory of when he very first met Clementine. There are slight uses of special effects in each memory loss scene as everything in the memory disappears. Joel is watching all the objects and people around him dissolve in front of his eyes. Some scenes are sped up in the edit and some are slowed down and certain shots are reversed. The use of light and sound are two main sources that build up the scenes to make them look as if Joel is experiencing something out of the ordinary.

When a memory of him and Clementine begins to be erased, it gets darker and there are spotlights that focus on Joel and Clementine. The sound is very disturbing and almost irritating but this is done on purpose to describe how frustrating the process is for the characters and how uncomfortable the experience is for Joel, just like it is for the audience to hear the sound and watch the fast cut scenes. The eye-line match technique is frequently used when Joel moves from one memory to another, as he is constantly moving from different events he has to re-focus and this is when the eye-line technique is used.

The scene where Joel is chasing after Clementine in his car after they have an argument was a big give away to the non-linear structure as at the beginning of the film you see Joel approach his car in the morning where he notices the damage in which he then leaves a “thank you! ” note on his neighbour’s car to suggest that his neighbour did it, but in actual fact it was Clementine who created the damage but due to his memory erasing he cant remember as this scene is actually the morning after his procedure. The structure of the edit in the car scene isn’t very straightforward and discontinuous, which may confuse viewers slightly.

You see Joel climb into his car and reverse away from the bollard that Clementine parked up against, chasing after her in the car as she walks along the street alone. He then stops and follows after Clementine on foot but as he runs after her the tracking shot of him is slowed down and then confusingly he is no longer running towards her and ends up in front of his smashed car at the other end of the street that he parked it at. He stops in confusion and turns around to see Clementine walking the opposite direction, so he beings to follow her again.

The cinematography in this scene is very realistic, it is hand held which would have been carried out with a stead-cam, Director of photography Ellen Kuras mentions in “forget me not” by John Pavlus what Gondry wanted “In one of the scenes, he wanted me to shake the camera so we could see it was a handheld effect in camera, as opposed to a locked-off superimposition effect or double exposure. ” [PAVLUS 2004: 1] The movement of shots makes the scene more realistic rather then having static shots. The purpose of this is to make the audience feel they are involved in the scene rather then just sat there watching it.

The style of cinematography in the film is very similar to the techniques that would be employed to produce a documentary. There is a lot of hand held camera work involved and the camera angles and shots have the documentary feel to them. The changes in focus are noticeable and in this case intentional as Gondry directs this style of camera work to give it that documentary feel. Use of pull-focus from one character to another is often seen in this film, for example Clementine is stood in the foreground and Joel is stood in the background as the camera pull-focuses from Clementine onto Joel.

Particular shots are out of focus such as objects and people in front of Joel, the reason for this is to show the distortion and deterioration of Joel’s memory. Crane shots are used in the scene where Joel is left alone on the iced over lake, he is looking up at the sky whilst pleading for the procedure to end. This high long shot signifies how little Joel is compared to everything around him, and how impossible it is for him to call the procedure off by simply shouting into the sky. It also signifies how alone he feels, being left behind when everything around him is dying.

As Corrigan says “In any film, from the most realistic to the most theatrical, there are specific properties of the mise-en-scene at which to direct your attention. ” [CORRIGAN 2010: 54]. This quote from the book ‘A short guide to writing about film’ gives a precise example of the way the mise-en-scene contributes to this film. The mise-en-scene plays a big significance to the story and characters in eternal sunshine; the effort and thought put into the sets is so complex. The film relies on the imaginative use of mise-en-scene to unfold the story bit by bit.

The thought behind this is to the balance between the real world of reality and the dream world. Although Joel is experiencing real life memories, he is also asleep, therefore all the random scenes which don’t completely make sense is the “dream world” balancing out with reality because in yourdreamsyou experience real life situations but often with the occasional random events which lead to a completely different subject and it throws you off track. And that is exactly what Joel is experiencing whilst re-living his memories.

The most memorable scenes and uses of mise-en-scene were the snowy beach scene where Joel and Clementine end up in their double bed together. This scene is so dream like with it being on a beach in the middle of winter, withsnowcovering every inch of the shore and just them two led there in their double bed in the middle of this isolated location is definitely something you wouldn’t come across on a normal day, therefore it is another dream like situation and a very significant scene.

The scene where Joel and Clementine rush into Dr. Howard Mierzwaik’s office is extremely surreal. It’s the type of thing that would pop up in a dream. The scene is dark and the only light is a shinning bright spotlight on positioned on each character. The camera is eye-lined positioned in front of Joel and Clementine following them into Dr. Mierzwaik’s office. This is an example of the use of an eye-match edit, when Joel reaches the office he looks at something off screen, then the shot changes to what he is looking at which is Dr. Mierzwaik sat at his desk.

As Joel begins to discuss that he no longer wants the procedure to continue to Dr. Mierzwaik colleagues at the surgery appear and their facial features are non-existent. All you see is a plain face with nothing on it. Joel begins to freak out and you can understand the terror he is feeling. The darkness of the scene and the small confined room that it is set in provides the viewers with a sense of how Joel is feeling, a definite atmosphere of being trapped and the thought of knowing that there is no escaping the process.

Every scene in this film is so detailed, built to its individuality and pieced together with such original editing techniques, which is why each scene is gratifying to watch because the amount of creativity that Gondry has put into it all. This film is very unpredictable; it goes from one scene to a completely different scene when you least expect it. As you sit and watch this movie you feel so engaged with the story and the characters and personally The reason behind this is all down to its style and filmic techniques.

This quote by Timothy Corrigan illustrates this: “In a movie, it is the camera that eventually films a mise-en-scene: when you watch a movie, you see not only the settings, actors, lighting but all these elements as they are recorded and then projected. ” [CORRIGAN 2010: 61] what Corrigan is saying is that cinematic practices make the most integral contributions to the construction of a film and Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind serves as an exceptional example of this.


  • CORRIGAN, Timothy. 2010. A short guide to writing about film. Seventh Edition. New York. PAVLUS, John. 2004. “Forget me not”.
  • American Cinematographer. [online] Available at: http://www. theasc. com/magazine/april04/cover/index. html [accessed 2010] SILVEY, Vivien. 2008.
  • ‘Not your average love story: film techniques in Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’. Screeneducation. [online] Available at: http://gateway. proquest. com/openurl? url_ver=Z39. 88-2004;res_dat=xri:iipa:;rft_dat=xri:iipa:article:fulltext:iipa00527918 [accessed 2010].