Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is regarded as one of the greatest films of the 21st century, receiving both critical acclaim and an even greater cult following. Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, the film is a transcendental balance between sci-fi and romance.
One day, the introverted and meek Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) takes an impromptu trip to Montauk. Throughout the day, he crosses paths with the extroverted and boisterous Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). On the train back, they begin conversation and soon after, a relationship. As the film progresses, it is revealed that Joel and Clementine were partners previously, but had their memories erased of each other at a firm called Lacuna, Inc. Symbolically, the name ‘lacunar’ links to the term ‘lacunar amnesia’, the condition where someone loses memory of a specific thing or event.
In this non-linear narrative, the majority of the film unfolds in Joel’s memories. The most helpful marker of the temporal changes is the change in Clementine’s hair from ‘Green Revolution’ when they first meet, a deep red during their relationship and Joel’s memories, a colour she calls ‘Agent Orange’ during the turning point in their relationship, and ‘Blue Ruin’ towards the end of the relationship leaning into the present, all of which reveal the chronology of events, be they in Joel’s memory or in reality.
Although Joel hires the firm to wipe his memory of Clementine after a bad breakup, he experiences an epiphany, of sorts, where he decides he doesn’t want to go through with the process. Incapable of stopping the technicians, he attempts to evade the erasure of his memories and escape the mental map that the firm constructed of his memories, in an effort to avoid losing Clementine permanently.
Meanwhile, the employees of Lacuna reveal their own problems. Patrick, who works as a technician, steals Joel’s memories and utilises them to start a relationship with Clementine. The receptionist, Mary, has feelings for Dr. Howard Mierzwiak, who we later discover erased her memory after they had an affair and his wife found out. It is Mary who provides us with the title to the film when she quotes Alexander Pope,
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned.
The poem, ‘Eloise to Abelard’, is based on two lovers who married in secret, and were punished when their families found out. In this context, the spotless mind expresses purity and lack of sin. In the film, Mary embodies this, by having recently wiped her memory to free herself from the sin she committed by having an affair with Howard. However, while wiping her memory may clear her of her conscience and subsequently her guilt, upon rediscovering these facts, she is forced to feel a much greater pain. This course of events inspires her to expose the firm to its previous clients, by mailing the information they originally sought to erase, in essence undoing all of Lacuna’s work.
One of the key elements in the production of the film is the balance between improvisation and structure. In an interview, Gondry revealed the entire cast was encouraged to improvise, with the exception of Jim Carrey. He shared, “Sometimes, I had to talk to Kate Winslet in a different room and tell her, ‘Go as big as you want! This is a comedy!’ And to Jim, I’d say, ‘This is a drama, not a comedy.'” Understandably, these choices line up with the essence of the characters. While Winslet portrays an effervescent and free-spirited individual, Joel is very set in his ways and definitely not one for improvisation.
The central discussion of the film lends itself to memory and heartbreak. The firm builds its business on solving the heartbreak of those who believe the only way to deal with loss is to act as if they never loved at all – perhaps an elaboration of the theory that ‘ignorance is bliss’. However, Joel and Clementine prove to be a pair that keep getting drawn back together. Furthermore, by erasing part of their memory, they end up removing a part of their own identity due to the experiences they shared where they were effectively shaped and influenced by another individual.
The most notable scenes are spawned from the forced amalgamation of various memories that rapidly shift perspectives. As Joel interacts with the employees of the clinic, he shifts between his memory and present self. This was achieved by literally running around the camera. Similarly, his memories as a child switch between himself as a child and himself as an adult, in one case – in his old kitchen – his dimensions are shrunk in comparison to his mother and Clementine. In another, his most humiliating memory as a child, the scene shifts between him and Clementine as adults interacting wit the children, and themselves as children. Time overlaps, forcing the audience to lose a clear sense of chronology. The lack of clarity reflects the state of mind of Joel, nonetheless, depending on how the ending is interpreted, there is a glimmer of hope that Joel and Clementine have found each other and are able to start from an almost clean slate.