“The star of the film is the script”, and in the case of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this couldn’t be truer. It’s witty, smart, neatly observed, and full of those surreal moments that Michel Gondry does so well. That’s not to say that everything Charlie Kaufman touches turns to gold, but Eternal Sunshine is right on the money — probably even better than the critically acclaimed Adaptation (2002). Why? Partly because it’s less self-referential, but also because Eternal Sunshine brings together the oddball content of Being John Malkovich (1999) with a more immediately accessible, maybe even plausible, reality.
Eternal Sunshine sets up a coherent means to explore the inside of a mind, in this case, the mind of a lonely thirty-something cartoonist, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), rather than climbing directly into John Malkovich’s head through a portal. Maybe it’s because I’m a hopeless romantic (Beck’s version of ‘Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime’, from this film was played as the first dance at my wedding), that makes me love this one the most. Maybe it’s because Kate Winslet has never been more beautiful in my opinion (yes, it’s the tangerine hair), or perhaps it’s because it was the first time I saw just how brilliant, and sincere, and delicate an actor Jim Carrey really was. Whatever the case, Eternal Sunshine is much easier to admire than Being John Malkovich precisely because its conceptual qualities are tied more subtly to the story’s structure.
And so the story goes…Joel’s ex-girlfriend, Clementine Krucynski (Winslet), who has just split from him after a drunken row at four in the morning, visits a company called Lacuna where they erase all memories of Joel from her mind.
“What can I say, Joel? You know Clementine. She’s like that. She’s … impulsive. She decided to erase you almost as a lark.” – Carrie (Jane Adams)
Clementine is very impulsive. It is a quality that attracted Joel to her in the first place; in fact, they’d never have been together at all if she didn’t make the first move — every time. Joel is the total opposite, missing out because he is too nervous about going and grabbing it by the horns. He always needed someone like Clementine to bring him to life. She is exciting, sexy and, yes, annoying. She is a horrible drunk, and it was the fact that she came home drunk at 4 am that they argued. However, she did not deserve the insult Joel gave her, which was to say that he expected that she slept with someone else because that’s how she got people to like her.
God, I hate that. I have heard that line or similar on a few occasions before, and it’s so cruel. Just because you might end up sleeping with a guy/girl on the first meeting doesn’t mean that’s the norm. Rather than turn it against the person you love, take it as a compliment that they connected with you in such a way so soon. Clementine leaves, understandably, and makes a rash decision.
She acts out in anger towards Joel and erases him from her memory, without stopping to think about the effect on her life. She ends up feeling aimless and lost. Joel, who has clearly been affected by Clementine’s spontaneity, decides to do the same thing as a reaction to his hurt.
After visiting her at the bookstore where she works to patch things up (Valentine gift in hand), Joel is mortified when she simply doesn’t recognize him. She even kisses her new boyfriend in front of him and, after discovering from friends what she has done, submits himself for the same treatment. This involves gathering together everything he can that reminds him of Clementine and then going through each object, one by one, while Lacuna’s technology builds a cognitive map of where each memory is stored. However, midway through the deletion process, when Joel is ‘inside’ his own head and drugged out of the real world, he decides he’d rather keep the memories than lose Clementine both physically and mentally.
Working against the eraser program, which is operated by Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and Patrick (Elijah Wood), Joel conspires with his memory version of Clementine to try and hide her in unexpected, guilty, or repressed areas of his mind that lie outside of the memory map. The story, therefore, provides a purpose for the string of hallucinatory and surreal images that follow as Joel moves back and forth through his memories, adapting and amending them to include Clementine, even as the memories he rescues her from are being destroyed. As a result, the film offers an original and curious analysis of an everyday relationship and, most significantly, suggests how such a relationship is constructed, altered, and shaped by memory. Much of what is apparently being shared between Clementine and Joel only exists inside Joel’s head.
Even though he fails to stop the procedure, Joel and Clementine make a subconscious pact to meet in Montauk. This promise exists on a higher plane than diary entries or mixtapes. There is something that will keep driving them together, despite the eradication of any physical evidence.
Back in the real world, this is paralleled by the misguided attempt of Patrick to seduce Clementine by using Joel’s discarded diaries and cartoons (a record of his love affair with Clementine) as inspiration for romantic lines she has already, unwittingly, enjoyed once before. It is a wry swipe at Hollywood sentimentality. Kaufman also deliberately evokes — in order to reject — a psychoanalytic reading of the film by peering into the dark corners of Joel’s mind. Such as his mother catching him masturbating to a self-drawn cartoon sex scene, featuring what looks like some sort of wolf creature, and later imaging himself as baby Joel (but full-grown Carrey) bathing in the kitchen sink and getting an eyeful of Clementine’s knickers (she in the guise of a next-door neighbour from the 1960s).
Nevertheless, while certain taboos are played for laughs, the film does hint at a moral undertone. A brief kiss between Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), the brains behind Lacuna, and his infatuated receptionist, Mary, unravels both his marriage and her relationship with Stan. But this affair implodes before it even begins when Howard is forced to admit they have been through this once already and that, at Mary’s request, he erased it from her memory. On a superficial level, Mary supported Dr Mierzwiak’s procedure, which was probably tied up in her romantic feelings for him. Once she finds out that she has been Dr Mierzwiak’s patient, she is not so complimentary. Mary realises that starting over just means that she will make the same mistakes over and over. The difference between a baby and an adult is years of growth and experience, and Dr Mierzwiak’s procedure only takes Mary backwards into naivete when she was a young girl in love with her boss. Ultimately, for Mary to really move on, she has to accept the past, deal with it, and let it go.
The fact that he chose not to undergo the same process gives him power over her through the knowledge she is no longer privy to. A dry analysis suggests the value of learning from past mistakes and infers the sinister aspects that relate to technology, knowledge, and power. However, to a more intuitive soul, it also points towards love, passion and desire as innate emotional responses that cannot be eradicated through a quick fix, technological/medical procedure.
Subsequently, there is more at stake here than moral finger-wagging or a latent technophobia, particularly as the Howard and Mary revelation is a necessary plot device required to set up the ending (Mary’s response is to inform all past clients of Lacuna about what they have done to themselves). Looking at the bigger picture, Kaufman is clearly fascinated by the relationship between humans and technology, by how nature and culture intersect, and how individual emotional responses can’t be reduced, simplified, reproduced, or recorded like so much other data.
Instead, Eternal Sunshine suggests that good, bad or indifferent, such experiences have to be lived through.
“I could die right now, Clem. I’m just happy. I’ve never felt that before. I’m just exactly where I want to be.” – Joel
Lying on the ice with Clementine is one of Joel’s happiest memories that he desperately wants to hold onto, but Dr Mierzwiak finds it and deletes it. However, Joel does get to relive it a second time after his and Clementine’s meeting in Montauk, despite not knowing he has done this once before. The beauty and contentment of this moment are diluted when Patrick tries to take Joel’s place and re-create it with Clementine. However, Clementine can sense that lying on the river with Patrick just doesn’t feel right, and she runs off the ice.
My clichés aside, what makes Eternal Sunshine, and Kaufman’s work in general so appealing, is that he places the examination of character at the very centre of his writing. For all the surreal events that unfold, these people live in a recognisably contemporary world where things are familiar and slightly drab. This is about people who commute by train, get by in average jobs and live in affordable looking apartment blocks. Technology doesn’t rule their lives. Even the Lacuna equipment is relatively low-key: the big tin helmet Joel has to wear looks like something custom made in a garage, cassette tapes and paper files are used to record information rather than a swanky digital format, and you can count the number of staff Mierzwiak employs on one hand. This isn’t about big corporations and the life-changing technology they forever threaten to produce looming on the horizon. This is about the daily grind and how people deal with the private chaos unfolding inside their heads.
“Joel, look at me. You’ll remember me in the morning, and you’ll come to me, and you’ll tell me about us, and we’ll start over.”
The version of Clementine that says this to Joel is all in his head, but the fact that he can conjure her up in such detail reveals how well Joel knows her. Their connection — or love — exists on a deeper level than the memories and objects that Dr Mierzwiak removes. The procedure may erase Clementine and Joel from each other’s minds, but they are immediately attracted to each other when they meet again. Their reunion proves that Dr Mierzwiak’s treatment does not change the nature of a person’s behaviour or adjust what that person is attracted to in a partner. Rather, it just sets back the clock, leaving the door open for the patient to retread the same path.
Clementine and Joel are torn between a decision of the head and a decision of the heart. Blissfully unaware of what came before, they fall for one another a second time around, only to receive tape recordings of all the things they grew to hate about one other in the first place; from Clementine’s hair colours to Joel’s puppy dog pouting — trapping them between an instinctive attraction and a rationalised retreat.
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m going to make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” – Clementine
Clementine says this to Joel twice — once during the first time they were falling in love, and again after they find out they have been together once before. She describes herself using the same words two years apart, showing that she has regressed in terms of her personal growth by erasing Joel from her memory. It does also show, though, that Clementine had Joel pegged from the start. He thought she could save him, even though she told him she could not. He learned that the hard way. Now, after erasing one another, they are back at the beginning. They know the end as well, but everything in between is gone.
Pretty much back at stage one then, except that this time their emotional baggage, bitterly skewed out onto cassette, has just arrived in a jiffy bag. However, whether this is a fresh starting point, with the slate wiped clean of past sorrows, or the final nail in the coffin of a dying relationship is left up to the viewer. Corny as it sounds, I can’t help but feel that, through this inconclusiveness, Kaufman is asking each audience member whether their own personal cup is currently half-full or half empty. For me, it’s overflowing. I cry my heart out every time because I believe that despite how much these pair drive each other crazy at times, they are destined to be together. The tandem impulses end up driving Joel and Clementine back together because even though they are gone from each other’s minds, they remain in each other’s hearts eternally.