Personal Pantheon: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004

 

“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

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4 thoughts on “Personal Pantheon: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004

  1. Aaron, I am SO SO SO happy you chose to critique Eternal Sunshine for your first movie review. It is probably (though not my top 10) one of my favorite Jim Carry Movies of all time (next to The Truman Show). I have to agree with almost everything you’ve said here, about character development, the directing, the visuals, everything. This post actually makes me want to go back and re-watch the movie all over again. I also liked how you opened up the blog with the quote by Pope, which is also a line Kirsten Dunst says in the movie to Howard I believe. (Correct me if I am wrong). Of my personal suggestions, I’d say incorporating still shots from the film as well as a movie poster or two would really liven this up. I’d even suggest plucking a clip or two of key scenes off youtube, or in the very least, imbedding the movie trailer for us to watch in here. Overall, great job, Aaron. I myself ‘am a huge movie buff (also ex film major), and I can’t wait to see what your review next week. Awesome.

    Chris Daniels

  2. This was a really detailed and well-thought analysis of the movie. I first looked at your long post and thought, ugh this is going to take forever, but once I started reading, I was drawn in because you gave specific examples (which helps someone who has never seen the movie enjoy this review) and you go into a deeper analysis of the meaning behind the movie.

    Not everyone will want to read through the big chunks you have here. To help break up the text, add some pictures of the characters when you are describing them. See if you can even get some video clips from youtube or another website. These visuals will keep people interested in reading a longer text, and also help those who haven’t seen the movie interested in what you have to say.

    Overall, nice work, Aaron. I’m looking forward to reading a review of a movie you didn’t like- I think this could be comical.

  3. This was an amazing review! I’ve never seen ‘Eternal Sunshine’, but you made me want to see it, which is very important. I like especially how you make it a point to say that Jim Carrey isn’t playing his normal role, which can be a turn off to some. You have a very good writing style and even though this was long, it wasn’t boring.

    I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I can’t see the picture at the top. Also, it would be a good idea to maybe add in clips of the movie, or even pictures, to break up the long texts if your entries are all going to be this length.

    Over all I really enjoyed this entry and can’t wait to read more and hopefully watch a couple of the movies mentioned.

  4. Hey Aaron,

    I decided to leave my first comment for your blog on this post instead of the newest one. I’ve been meaning to see “Almost Famous” for a really long time. You posting about it will help me stop procrastinating. I have, however, seen Eternal Sunshine and it’s one of my favorite movies as well. I really liked the way you structured your post. You use a good combination of details of the movie and your own opinions on the movie. I agree that doing a review of a movie you didn’t like would be a great idea for this blog. It would switch up the subject matter a bit and help to keep the blog fresh. Appearance wise, the blog looks good, but could probably use more visuals in the posts. I see you used several video clips in your newest post and I think that will help make the length of the posts less intimidating. Great work and I look forward to seeing what other movies you will include!

    – Brian

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