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The Use of Color in Michel Gondry'sThe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
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by Jonathan Doughty

Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a cinematic text that cries out for theory. From bioethics to psychiatry to narrative studies, this film proves loaded for analytical picking and flicking. However, in lieu of these more weighty sensiblities, I would like to offer a few direct observations on Gondry's usage of specific color palettes within the film, and how these visual devices, in turn, generate meaning for the film as a whole.

Colored Narrative


Of course, in the first case -- and most importantly -- the film's color schemes present to the viewer a mnemonic method for arranging the film's non-linear narrative within an intelligible order. The most immediate clue for maintaining this arrangement over the discourse of the film is to note the color of Clementine's hair at any given point. In the chronology of the couple's relationship (given in non-linearity as Joel recounts his rapidly vanishing memories), Clementine's hair color moves from green (her first time meeting Joel on the Montauk beach), to red (happy times with Joel, including the instances of her "leading" Joel around in his memory to attempt to salvage memories of her), to orange (relationship stasis and breakup), and finally, to blue (post-breakup and re-falling in love with Joel).

Accordingly, the "personality" of Joel and Clementine's relationship becomes, in effect, color-coded. Clementine, upon their re-meeting board the train to New York City from Montauk, even declares to Joel--albeit in coded terms--that schizophrenic association of hair color to personality. As they sit on the train together, the couple tries to ascertain where, when, and how they may have previously met each other:

Joel: I would've thought I'd have remembered you.
Clementine: It might be the hair.
Joel: What might?
Clementine: It changes a lot;- the color. That's why you might not recognize me.

Here Clementine hints that hair color changes and personality changes within the film are related occurrences. This conversational exchange also raises the frightening technological import of the whole Lacuna procedure -- that the erasing of one's memories, and hence personal identities, become as casual and simple as the changing of one's hair color.

Secondly, it engages the viewer to take into more precise account what associations (both cultural and cognitive) come with certain color schemes. Additional extensions of meaning follow from the use of hair colors. As heuristic device, one may assign to the stages of a romantic relationship the particular scheme of a deciduous tree's seasonal color changes. In this scheme, the leaves of the spring and summer are green. Autumnal leaves first become red, then orange, as they become increasingly dessicated in cyclical advance to the symbolic "death"; embodied in wintry coldness and barrenness.

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In this fittingly seasonal scheme, Joel and Clementine’s relationship progresses/regresses according to the color scheme of Clementine’s hair. At the start of their relationship, Clementine’s hair is green (as shown in the party on the beach at Montauk). Clementine’s hair is later shown as red, during a hiking trip, during which they seem to be enjoying each other’s company. However, by the time Clementine’s hair is orange, relationship troubles are apparent. Any sort of romantic playfulness between the two of them is notably absent as they silently share dinner together at a Chinese restaurant, during which Joel solemnly reflects: “Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants? Are we the dining dead?” By this stage, the “winter” of their romantic relationship is fast approaching.

Clementine, furthermore, assigns highly specific, culturally-loaded modifiers to the hair coloring dyes she uses over the course of her relationship with Joel. As she sits talking with Joel on the train from Montauk to New York City, she lists the names of several hair dyes: Blue Ruin (also the name of a cocktail she serves to Joel later that evening), Red Menace, Green Revolution, Agent Orange, and Yellow Fever. These color descriptions are not of the sort that one would expect to find on a Crayola box, or even upon a package of Manic Panic. Referencing totalitarian Marxism, infectious disease, toxic herbicide, and even Asian fetishism, these modifiers serve to evoke charged responses in the listener-viewer. Love is far from innocent in Gondry's narrative, so neither are the particular colors that modify this love.

Poetic Namesake

It is also necessary to consider the very poem from which the title of the film is taken. Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” offers additional insight into Gondry’s specific use of color palettes. These very schemes are introduced in the poem itself:

But o'er the twilight groves and dusky caves,
Long-sounding aisles, and intermingled graves,
Black Melancholy sits, and round her throws
A death-like silence, and a dread repose:
Her gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades ev'ry flow'r, and darkens ev'ry green…

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This excerpt from the poem references the film’s use of color on several levels. “Twilight”/“dusk” color schemes feature prominently at the beach scenes during which Joel and Clementine (re)meet each other. Joel’s tearful drive home to receive his memory-erasing procedure, as well as the earlier moment of breakup with Clementine, occurs in the night (a well-depicted visual instance of “Black Melancholy”). The green that colored Clementine’s hair at their first meeting at Montauk, as well, subsequently darkens to blue at the conclusion of their relationship. Moreover, that this “Black Melancholy” sits upon “long-sounding aisles” opens itself to a reading that references a particular case of homophonic association. The “long-sounding aisles” of Pope’s poem, under Gondry’s direction, become the “Long Island” of the film. Certainly, the gloomy gray tones of Montauk, Long Island, would recall the theme of “blackness” so prevalent to Pope’s poem. Black, it must be remembered, is the lack -- the lacunae -- of any color.

Within the poem, Eloisa expresses a desire to forget her romantic past with the (literally) castrated Abelard, who becomes a monk more out of circumstance than calling. Gondry consistently presents Joel Barish as a powerless and wishy-washy (symbolically castrated) male figure (while noticing Clementine on the beach beside him, he thinks aloud: “…I’m incapable of making eye contact with a woman I don’t know!…”). More specifically, during their breakup scene on the street, Clementine calls Joel a “faggot,” not to denote his sexual orientation, but rather, to connote his lack -- his lacuna -- of masculine power. In this sense, Joel of the film becomes the Abelard of the poem: a man emasculated and weak amidst his black (color-less) melancholy.

Reading Red

Notably absent within the film’s general color palette, however, is the color red. This seems a rather pointed omission, for “red” is both cognitively and culturally associated with love, romance, passion, and such qualities of a sensual nature. In what few instances, then, may the viewer notice the use of the color red –- that color so traditionally bound to notions of love and romance? Here, Gondry seems to be playing with the viewer’s expectations, forcing the viewer to search for “red” within a cinematography overwhelmingly dominated by steely blue and gray tones (the sky, the ocean, the trainyard) -- colors typically deemed “cold” and “unemotional.”

Several critical conclusions concerning the color red (and the lack of it) may then be drawn by the viewer. With the exception of Clementine’s hair, Gondry places other instances of red rather subtly within the film. The ostensible under-representation of red is perhaps most conspicuous on Valentine’s Day, as Joel awaits the train to take him to work: Only a few individuals can be seen holding red Valentine’s Day gifts, while the rest of the frame is overwhelmingly dominated, again, by steely gray/blue tones. As Joel sits on the beach with his journal later that day, however, the viewer notices a sign placed in the sand to his side. In red is written the warning, “For Safety, Swim In A Designated Area.” The color red, in addition to matters of romance, is also associated with “danger” and “warning.” Gondry, surely, must appreciate the semiotic play of this actual physical object –- the warning sign itself -- as signifier, insofar as it signifies the “dangerous waters” of love and heartbreak. The beachfront sign, then, remains doubly encoded: In an immediate sense, it states a direct warning against the literal dangers of swimming in unsafe tidal waters; at the same time, however, the posted sign becomes an extension of aquatic associations of love (for example, the adages that “there are plenty more fish in the sea,” or “if you want to learn to swim, you have to jump into the water”), and offers a well-placed caveat against the crossing of an oceanic/romantic bar.

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The color red also features in Gondry’s utilization of extreme close-up photography to draw the viewer’s to one of Joel’s particular repositories of romantic sentiment, his snowglobe. As Joel undergoes the preparatory exercises for his memory-erasing procedure, Stan places a snowglobe on the table before Joel. Within the snowglobe, the viewer can discern (via the use of shallow focus and extreme close-up) a little red house. Joel stares at the snowglobe, then remarks that “[t]here’s a good story behind this” before Stan interrupts him from speaking further. In this example of the usage of the color red, the snowglobe -- with its quaint little red house -- holds a particularly fond association for Joel.

Scopophilia against Amnesia

Finally, color use enables the viewer to understand how Joel and Clementine are able to fall back in love after the brainwashing procedures done to each of them. In keeping with this cognitive approach, the use of color may also explain how Joel becomes re-attracted to Clementine. Clementine catches Joel’s eye on the beach while wearing an orange sweatshirt. This stands out starkly against the gray skies and water of the ocean (at both his first meeting with her and also at his re-meeting with her on the Montauk beach). Theoretically, Joel and Clementine could separate any number of times, have the Lacuna procedure redone as needed, and then re-fall in love, ad infinitum. This is because orange sweaters (which Clementine enjoys wearing, regardless of the status of her love life) on women is something that Joel finds attractive (Joel states this himself as he recalls his first encounter with Clementine on the Montauk beach):
“I remember being drawn to you even then…I thought, ‘Wow, how odd -- I’m drawn to someone’s back!’ You were wearing that orange sweatshirt…”

This urge occasions a curious “return of the repressed” on Joel’s part, despite his best efforts to destroy all memories of Clementine: Here, Joel can suppress the memories but not eliminate that cognitive trigger (the color orange itself) that initially attracted him, and then re-attracts him, to her. If the Lacuna procedure were actually to succeed for Joel, one would surmise, it would necessarily involve restricting his affinitive apperception of the color orange, or even outrightly colorblinding him (visual castration?). That orange is popularly considered the “color” of sunshine (or, perhaps more scientifically apropos, the sun) is a linkage that is critically seized by Gondry in relating the content of the film to the film’s title; that “sunshine” is Clementine’s personal display of orange, and hence assumes an “eternal” quality in that it recurrently attracts Joel to her. (In fact, can we definitely know that Joel and Clementine -- and even the other characters -- have only had the Lacuna procedure done once?)


Conclusion


The understanding and subsequent interpretation of Gondry’s use of color within Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains critical viewer’s appreciation of this cinematic text. To many film critics, this particular film might open up renewed space for the consideration of what makes specific color schemes within a film (un)attractive to the viewer. Gondry, for his part, enjoys playing with such inquiries within the film. This sort of color palette playfulness, indeed, raises questions worth further inquiry: For example, how does the relation of cognition to culture affect the viewer's appreciation of particular colors? How fundamental is the usage of color to convey any emotion? And even -- could a similar screenplay be transformed into a black-and-white film? Here, Gondry seems satisfied with offering to the viewer a more basic, yet nonetheless stimulating task –- the critical engagement of a color palette that is not only enchanting to decipher, but enjoyable, and often startling, to behold.

NOTES

1. Michel Gondry, dir., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features, 2004).
2. Ibid.
3. Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard,” 1717.
4. Michel Gondry, dir., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features, 2004).
5. Coloring aside, Gondry’s choice of snowglobe as memento seemingly references the iconic status of the snowglobe made effective by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Put another way, it is difficult to place a snowglobe within a movie in such a way that it does not hold reference to what it does for Kane –- i.e., a "reverse-scrying" meant to evoke fond memories of better times.
6. Michel Gondry, dir., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus Features, 2004).

text c. 2008 Jonathan Doughty / photos c. 2008 Focus Features

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244