“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.” -Alexander Pope, “Eloisa to Abelard”
Memories are important. They remind us of where we are in life, what we have learned, who we learned those things with, and what we need to figure out in the future. All of the experiences we have in life, good or bad, need to be accounted for, no matter how painful they are in order for us to develop further as people. This is the core lesson of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” written by Charlie Kauffman and directed by Michel Gondry.
“Eternal Sunshine” is a strange film. It has a plot straight out of science fiction, it plays with narrative structure, it has bizarre imagery, but at the same time, it is one of the most heartbreaking and romantic love stories ever told. I first saw this movie on HBO when I was 16. I liked it for the visual style and the performances by Jim Carrey and especially Kate Winslet, but it wasn’t until I saw it again a few years later that I fully grasped the emotional heft the film carries.
The movie is about Joel (Carrey), a lonely, introverted cartoonist who has just broken up with Clementine (Winslet) an impulsive, free-spirited woman. When Joel confronts her and notices that Clementine doesn’t even recognize him, he finds out she had her memory erased by Lacuna Inc., because she didn’t want to deal with the bad memories of her relationship with Joel. Joel is crushed upon hearing this news, so he goes to Lacuna and decides to have his memories of Clementine erased. The rest of the film mostly takes place in Joel’s mind, as we watch his relationship with Clementine play out in reverse, and see all of Joel’s memories of her get destroyed. But something happens during this process. Joel realizes that even though the relationship ended badly, he can’t stand to live his life without these memories. So he begins to fight back at the erasing process and try to hold onto his memories.
That brings up the theme of this film: all memories are important in some way. Removing bad ones removes pieces of the soul. It is true, bad things happen to everyone, but people need to carry these bad memories to remind us of why we treasure the good ones. It is like bad memories put the rest of our lives in context. Ignorance is not bliss, it is just one half of an unbalanced equation. Eliminating all traces of someone that was once loved will not fix anything. There are people who go their whole lives never feeling the intense love Joel feels for Clementine. To just throw that away to make yourself feel better is damn near criminal.
Other than the essential themes of holding onto our memories, the two other things that stand out on this film are Gondry’s visual style and the gallery of well-drawn characters. Gondry is an amazing visualist, and he uses every trick in the director’s playbook to show memories being destroyed. As I said, there is a lot of surreal imagery in this film, and all of it is used in service of the story. We see the settings of each memory destroyed in a variety of ways, from total destruction (buildings collapse, cars fall out of the sky) to objects and people vanishing into thin air. Every scene brings the promise of something strange and unusual happening.
But all of the surreal imagery would go for naught if the film did not have engaging characters. Joel and Clementine are polar opposites. Joel is quiet, unassuming, but has a quiet yearning for someone or something to make him feel something and bring some purpose into his life. Clementine is wildly impulsive, demonstrated by her constantly changing hair color. But deep down she is lonely and does not have a very high opinion of herself. Carrey and Winslet are playing roles that are the complete opposites of what they play in so many other films, but their performances here are astonishing. Carrey, who usually gets lost within his broadly comic shtick and forgets he is playing a character in so many of his other films, brings Joel’s repressed personality to life. Winslet, on the other hand, has a much more difficult role. She has to play someone who presents herself as care-free but on the inside has many of the same problems as anyone else. As a result, she gives one of my favorite performances in any movie. Actually, calling this a performance is underselling it, she completely transforms into this character. It is still unlike anything she has done in any other film, and she nails every single neurosis and issue of Clementine. Another great thing about these characters is how deeply flawed and even unlikable they become at times. One mistake so many films that deal with break-ups is that they tip the scale in one character’s direction and villianize the other to the point where we never understand why these two people ever got together (“The Break-Up” with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn is a perfect example of this). But Clem and Joel are deeply flawed people. Joel occasionally acts like a jerk towards Clementine, growing impatient with her impulsiveness. Clementine is immature, and sometimes unable to understand that this kind of personality is not always endearing. Even though they are completely different people, the love they once had is never in doubt. We empathize with Joel as he fights so hard to hold onto his memories of Clementine, even if he knows the chances of reconciling their relationship are slim.
There are many other interesting characters in this film as well, some of them can even carry their own movie if given the chance. Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo) are the erasers. Patrick even steals Joel’s memories to seduce Clementine in the present, further demonstrating the ethical problems with this process. Tom Wilkinson plays Howard, the doctor in charge of the operation, and Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, the doctor’s assistant who has a deep-seeded obsession with him. The relationship between Howard and Mary is another demonstration of the film’s theme of how removing bad memories does not fix anything.
But overall, what makes “Eternal Sunshine” such a beautiful film and one of my absolute favorites is that despite its fantastical elements, it deals with problems that are grounded in reality. It is a cliche to say “it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all,” but this film is the best demonstration of why that is true I have ever seen. Because it is impossible to look back on happiness if one has no recollection of unhappiness.
-image courtesy of friesian.com