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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at 15: Why the mind-bending film remains a perfect portrait of heartbreak

Michel Gondry’s surreal delight challenges us to question why we allow ourselves to be so ruled by our emotional scars, Clarisse Loughrey writes

Tuesday 19 March 2019 09:18 GMT
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play ex-partners who decide to have their memories of each other erased
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey play ex-partners who decide to have their memories of each other erased (Rex)

Two lovers, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), opt to have their memories of each other erased after a painful breakup, only to meet and fall in love once more. Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, is filled with so many surreal delights that its story can be easily mistaken for the stuff of dreams. But there are hard truths at its centre – the kind we may not even want to hear, even if we know it’s good for us.

Thanks to its screenplay by the master of existential despair, Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine’s reputation has only grown in the passing years. Produced on a budget of $20m (£15m), the film was released in US cinemas in 2004 and earned an impressive $72m at the worldwide box office, alongside an Oscar nomination for Winslet and an Oscar win for screenwriters Kaufman, Gondry and Pierre Bismuth. When the venerable film critic Roger Ebert revisited the film in 2010, he added an extra half star to his rating in order to award it full marks, noting: “Why I respond so intensely to this material must involve my obsession with who we are and who we think we are.” It’s now generally considered one of the best films of the century.

Indeed, time has only deepened the emotional effects of Eternal Sunshine. The more we revisit it, the more we can look beyond the dazzling effects of how the story’s told, as we travel backwards through Joel’s memories. Gondry relies heavily on practical effects in order to depict Joel’s memories collapsing in on themselves – there are featureless faces, disappearing people and cars falling from the sky. Yet it’s not all whimsy for the sake of it. Eternal Sunshine uses the landscape of Joel’s mind to build a perfect portrait of heartbreak, by reminding us that we can only look back on our past relationships through the prism of our memories. And that those memories can be fickle, inconsistent things.

Pain and despair always seem to overshadow the more delicate, gentle feelings of joy. After a breakup, it’s so often the arguments, the tears, and the frustrations that all come flooding back. We can sometimes forget why we ever fell in love in the first place. Could it have simply been that love was making us blind to the reality of this person? “Too many guys think I’m a concept,” Clementine warns Joel early on in their relationship. “I’m just a f**ked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind.” It makes no difference. He still convinces himself that she’ll save his life.

Gondry’s film offers us the tantalising image of a clean break. It imagines a world where we could shed ourselves of the past and simply start again. The film’s title, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, recalls the work of Alexander Pope. In his 1717 poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, he writes: “How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!/ The world forgetting, by the world forgot./ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!” To forget can be a kind of freedom. Yet, while Eternal Sunshine is cynical enough to indulge in this mentality for much of its running time – portraying relationships as inevitably shrouded by emotional baggage – it also challenges us to question why we allow ourselves to be so ruled by our emotional scars.

After Joel makes a visit to Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) of Lacuna, Inc – an institution set up specifically to erase the things that have become too painful to remember – we start the process of systematic deletion. The first memory to go is the moment the relationship crumbled. After Clementine arrives home late and drunk (again), Joel accuses her of infidelity, claiming sex is the only way she can get people to like her. This memory is the most vivid. The camera frantically follows Clementine as she packs up her belongings. Joel had simply come to assume Clementine will get drunk and act recklessly. She feels like she might as well live up to the expectation.

Past that, we travel back to the boredom stage, where Joel ponders whether their restaurant date rituals have reduced them to “the dining dead”. It’s only until we scroll all the way back to the honeymoon period of the relationship that Joel starts to have second thoughts about the mind-wiping process. As we witness the simple, isolated image of Joel and Clementine lying together on a frozen lake, looking up at the stars, he’s reminded of how things once were.

The sentiment hits home when Joel and Clementine meet for a second time, after their memories have been wiped. A heartbroken, disgruntled employee of Lacuna, Inc finds them and hands them both a tape of their sessions at the company, in which they speak frankly about their relationship and why they decided to have the process done. The Joel and Clementine of today can’t quite believe what they’re hearing. In the tapes, she says: “He changed me. I don’t like myself anymore.” The moment they spent together on the frozen lake may as well never have existed. He claims her compulsion to change hair colour is “all bulls***”. All that the Joel of today can do is sheepishly retort: “I like your hair.” That something so trivial as someone’s hair colour could feel romantic one day, ridiculous the next shows how far the pain of their breakup has fundamentally changed how they see each other. These are two versions of the same people, looking at each other through two different perspectives.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind trailer

Yet, in all of Joel and Clementine’s misery, the film offers us one hope: what would happen if we embraced heartbreak, instead of fearing it? Why do we always see it as a loss to be grieved? What if we accepted it simply as a part of who we are?

Throughout the film, there’s a sense that Clementine has been affected by the loss of her memories. At one point, she admits: “I feel like I’m disappearing.” The person she is today can only exist because of both the love and the heartbreak she endured; those things exist in equal balance, even if it feels like the pain was so much greater than the joy. The film guides us to final realisation: when Joel and Clementine clock they’ve already been in a relationship that has failed, they’re faced with the decision of whether their love will be worth another inevitable breakup. Clementine insists that Joel will find things he doesn’t like about her, while she’ll “get bored and feel trapped, because that’s what happens with me”. His response? “OK.” Love is always worth it, whatever comes after.

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