Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is one of the most original, invigorating, bizarre, and thought-provoking movies of the decade. It’s basically a love story in reverse, yet through all its acid-trip techniques and visual devices (courtesy screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry), it manages to illustrate the harsh (and heartbreaking) consequences of the choice to remove what one perceives as the most painful memories he or she would rather live their lives without. In the case of the film’s main characters, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Krucynski (Kate Winslet), they would rather forget they even loved or cared about each other than to live a life of arguments, neglect, and pain.
The story implies that Clementine has erased Joel from her memory through a corporation called Lacuna, Inc. This is a company that specializes in helping clients by erasing certain memories. When Joel learns this, he decides to go through the same process. What follows is a subconscious tour (again, in reverse) through Joel’s memories of moments with Clementine and anything that reminds him of her.
Kaufman (often known for his uncanny, quirky, and angst-ridden work like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) and Gondry (who made the 2001 critically-middling Human Nature) do a terrific job of subtly introducing Joel and Clementine through an ordinary meeting of sorts in an opening sequence. At first viewing, this looks to be a low-key, affecting romantic comedy-drama. Then the tone changes (confusingly) with a cut to a more depressing and disappointing state. (Did I mention the opening credits don’t appear until 20 minutes into the film?)
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir assist Kaufman and Gondry in occasionally confusing the audience with insane editing techniques and (for the most part) non-CGI visual clues, many involving time lapses and certain things that actually happen at a specific point in the story. For instance, some viewers may wonder when the process actually begins in the film. At the same time, there is a lot of very creative and poetic imagery, including the change in Clementine’s hair color (“I apply my personality in a paste”), the ice crack in the frozen lake where Joel and Clem share a tender moment (as seen in the film’s poster), the lights going out in Joel’s memory of a bookstore, and fading memory illustrations from fogs. These elements and more are complete with an equally engaging, quirky, and contemporary soundtrack by composer Jon Brion (known for his work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love). The standout track that opens and closes the film is Beck’s “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” a poignant ballad that sums up the theme of the film (“I need your loving, like the sunshine”).
It should be noted that this story is set around Valentine’s Day – or, as Joel tells us, “a holiday invented by greeting card companies who make people feel like crap.” This adds to the film’s context of whether love is something worth keeping or embracing or not.
Through Joel’s point of view, audience members witness the process of internally experiencing one’s memories being erased while simultaneously reliving them. Afterward, according to Lacuna founder, Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), a (supposedly) “new life” awaits the client. This bizarre and fascinating (literal) notion of seeing in one’s head and interacting with people from said thoughts feels kind of like a scene from Being John Malkovich expanded to great effect. But instead of Malkovich seeing visual replicas of himself, all uttering the same word constantly, Joel sees friends and strangers of the past and recent present as only he remembers. If that wasn’t enough, he begins to hear voices outside of his own subconsciousness – in this case, the employees who are erasing his memories (Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst), as if they’re making some sort of commentary on the process of making things go away, as well as on their own personal lives. Patrick (Wood), for one, becomes Clem’s new romantic interest, yet he physically exemplifies the notion of identity theft. We know this when he’s looking through Clem’s old handbag and attempting to replicate Joel’s memories within himself. The overall erasing and recollection effect works like a surrealist version of It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of how it illustrates the harsh and painful elements at first, then gradually recalls the moments that actually meant something after all.
From the latter note, the story does take an unexpected and quite emotionally resonant turn when Joel realizes that there are some memories of his that are too precious to destroy. In response, he attempts to take Clem in various present memories, tries to escape the process and get to Mierzwiak in the physical world.
This proves a brilliant showcase for Jim Carrey, in terms of Joel’s serious undertones and concerned state. It may be his finest performance, as there is hardly a moment where he displays his usually-hysterical, rapid-fire persona that occupied his comedies of the nineties (although one or two amusing moments come close). Even more, he allows us to understand Joel’s conflictions, his shyness, his angst, his admirations, and his regret, such as when he decides to call the procedure off halfway through (but to no avail), or when he and Clementine are lying on an ice lake in winter, or when they are having a quiet chat at Barne’s & Noble (where she works). Kate Winslet, for her part, shines as Clementine, bringing a level of edge, free-spiritedness, and voice. Note how her hair colors express the mood of a given moment, and how she seems to understand Joel’s concerns and regrets through his erasing process (again, as only his memories display and recall).
Christian author Erwin Raphael McManus references the film in his 2006 book “Soul Cravings,” contemplating the effects of what these characters go through. McManus writes,
“Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet come together to explore the question, Is a mind free of the pain of love filled with eternal sunshine? If you had the chance to erase all the memories of your greatest love to be free from the pain of losing it, would you? I wouldn’t. I don’t think any of us would. . . . We are addicted to love, and it’s out of control. We would give anything and everything to find it.”
That about sums it up. And while Eternal Sunshine spends more time trying to hold on to a certain kind of love rather than searching for it, it does suggest the possibility and challenge of making a connection work, despite the risks that will likely be involved. Joel realizes that his choices (expressed through the age-old moral of never knowing what you have until you lose it) create consequences, as do the effects of hurtful words, distancing/dysfunctional relationships, and the belief that love is meaningless.
But love has many names. And musician Beck’s poignant ballad provides a meaningful and honest reason for the right kind of love. A love that deserves to be learned from, to grow in, and to trust in. It is a need and a necessity that fills what Alexender Pope refers to in his piece “Eloisa to Abelard” (and where the film gets its title):
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.
Overall rating: 4/5 stars