Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week I return to Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, to his 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” directed by Michael Gondry, and Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, from which the film get’s it title.
Artist Pierre Bismuth posed a question to Michael Gondry; what if you had been sent a card saying she has had you erased from her memory – please don’t try and reach her, what would you do? Gondry and Kaufman decided to film it.Mary (Kirstin Dunst) and Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson)work for Lacuna Inc (a company that specialises in erasing memories) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) wants to erase memories of her relationship with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey). Shy, clever Joel and doesn’t want to let go of hismemories of free spirited indie-pixie girl, Clementine, nor does he want to be lost to her when he finds out that she has erased him.
The title of the film is from Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem Eloisa to Abelard. A true tale of torrid love from 12th Century Paris. Abelard, a renowned scholar, is hired to teach the beautiful and intelligent Heloise. They fall in love, she gets pregnant with disastrous consequences, run away together, he offers to marry her, she refuses because she wants freedom. Her father tracks down Abelard and castrates him, thenAbelard joins a monastery and writes a book about his misfortunes. Heloise gets a copy, understands he has written it for her, instantly she falls in love with him again even though she is holed up in a nunnery.
Alexander Pope was a shy, diffident and deformed catholic boy in a highly segregated society. Against all odds he decided to be the top poet in England and by the time he was 28 he had reached fame and fortune. He tackled the big love poem and turned it into one of the best sellers of the day.
In the film Joel and Clementine are bog standard outsiders. Their ‘meet-cute’ is talking about writers and musicians. Their flaws are immediate; “I’m a vindictive little bitch truth be told” she tells him. While he ruminates that he falls in love with anyone who gives him attention.
What interested me was that Pope’s poem is from Eloisa’spoint of view, her reply to Abelard in the form of a letter. The poem is in heroic rhymed couplets and traces her racing mind, that goes from past to present in urgent moan of love. “rove my thoughts” he writes, and uses repetition and rhythm to emphasise her conflict.
“yet, yet I love”, Eloise, like all doomed lovers feels different things simultaneously, and the subject of the poem becomes these roving thoughts. Pope masterfully speeds up the action and slows it down again as he shows her thinking about her feelings, e.g. “what means this tumult?’ Pope writes a mind in conversation with itself, that’s so familiar and common in heartache and echoed in the Film. The poem has hard breaks that change pace and and the film also cuts and breaks the narrative as realities collide.
Pope writes Eloisa’s internal world operated from an outer world where she listens to sermons, while inside she remembers them making love. It was Pope that developed thisheroic, romantic style that would go on to influence Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley. Pope gives Eloisa’s tormented past a pain that leads her to think it best that she forgets everythingand only experience spiritual ecstasy.
“Oh come! oh teach me nature to subdue,
Renounce my love, my life, myself—and you.
Fill my fond heart with God alone, for he
Alone can rival, can succeed to thee”
But we don’t believe her. Her body loves him. She kisses the book he’s written to be close to him. She writes to him that it is better he forgets her too even though he has written a book for her.
“ah come not, write not, think not once of me,
nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.
Thy oaths I quit, Thy memory resign;
forget, renounce me, hate whate’er was mine.”
Is it possible to forget someone you have loved? There is a whole psychological school that speaks of the unconscious storing attachments, of the body having memory, of memory itself being consciousness. Do we learn from our past or are we doomed to repetition?
Will Joel be the same person if he erases Clementine? How will he remember if or why he likes Rain Dogs by Tom Waitsor Music for Airports by Brian Eno and that book by Joel Towney Rodgers they both liked? All of these things go to construct a person. That is the point of the film. The bodyremembers even if we can erase the details of a relationship,endless arguing, boredom and resentments. Joel’s first girlfriend, Naomi, tells him when he breaks it off with her, whatever the girl Joel will always be himself – with the same problems. Our minds are never spotless.
Mary Svevo (Kirsten Dunst) tries to impress Dr. Mierzwiak and quotes the poem that gives the film its title. She forgets the name of the poet, he finds that charming. She reads the words from ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ also forgetting she’s had an affair with her boss and wiped those memories.
“How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;”
I recommend Sage’s Rain podcasts for more on this Filmhttps://youtu.be/_ZqbuE0ehf8