“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” comes from the strange and unusual minds of Charlie Kaufman and Michael Gondry. Kaufman who was responsible for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” thinks at odd angles to everything. Michael Gondry is a fantastic and visionary stylist. With that collaboration, combined with Michael Gondry directing the story, the results were bound to be unusual.
On the surface though “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a conventional story. Boy gets Girl. Boy loses Girl. Boy tries to get Girl back. It’s arguably one of humanity’s oldest stories. Certainly Hollywood’s. And in a way what is precisely so unusual about “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is just how ordinary it is.
Taken at face value, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” introduces a single Science Fiction concept, the idea that memories of specific events or people can be selectively erased. While a concept like that would traditionally be treated “Minority Report” style with lots of gleaming silver gadgets and a sleek futuristic aura, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” manages to convey it as something as equally commonplace as going to the dentist.
Shot down on the Lower East Side in an actual rundown doctor’s office, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” makes the entire medical process involved seem as plausible and ubiquitous as any other cosmetic medical procedure, giving us infomercials by a weary Dr. Merzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and a cramped narrow office filled with scattered files and rumpled neurotic clients. As in “Being John Malkovich” the inconceivably extraordinary becomes transformed into something shabby and everyday that not only is it not implausible, but it is hardly worth even thinking twice about. A gleaming futuristic car may be spectacular but difficult to accept as real. A rundown dirty battered vehicle of the kind we see in “Blade Runner” is much more plausible because it’s been worn and used. It’s a technology that’s been lived with and in.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” does not focus on the mechanics of the technology but the mechanics of memory, leading us deep into the inner bittersweet heart of a relationship between two people and into the human mind. As a shy retiring and neurotic New Yorker who draws and scribbles compulsively in his journal, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) lives more in his mind than anywhere else. The night which follows and which occupies the majority of the movie, will be the longest night of his life and take place almost entirely in his mind. But the human mind, Joel Barish’s mind, contains oceans of memories and connected feelings and relationships. While Lacuna’s staff work to purge his memories, Joel Barish voyages through those memories, traveling through childhood and adulthood, charting the course of his relationship withClementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and summoning her as his guide and companion.
On one level “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a romantic comedy, on another it’s a suspenseful thriller, but underlying them all is a reality created by turbulent emotions and the insecurity our fears and needs create in our relationships with other people. Though Jim Carrey might be a twenty million dollar actor, Joel Barish is no leading man. He is awkward, nervous, passive aggressive, petty and weak. By turn Clementine gives Kate Winslet to play the unwound and painfully vulnerable characters she excels at portraying. Clementine is a brash extrovert where Joel is a reclusive introvert. She says everything she feels, while he keeps everything back. Neither of them are remotely suited for each other and yet they seem to be meant to be together.
Like “Dark City” and Jim Carrey’s own turn in “The Truman Show”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” appears to reject memory as the essence of who we are. Like both these films, Joel and Clementine’s journey takes them beyond memory and reaffirms their connection at a level that transcends the ordinary mental data they have built up together. But “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” does not pin everything on a vague soul, as “Dark City” does, but like “The Truman Show” argues that we can create a real meaningful sense of ourselves despite the absence or the presence of false memories by rediscovering in a vital sense who we really are.
Joel Barish’s memories however are not artificial, nor is memory an irrelevant datum. Instead it’s the path that he follows together with the Clementine of his mind that leads him to see the total shape of their relationship. Like a dying man seeing his life flash before his eyes, Joel sees a dying relationship and the dying memories that hold it pass before him, struggling to hold on to them even as they escape him. Yet at the very end, Joel gains basic insights into his relationship with Clementine. These insights seem to be irrelevant because they are lost when the night ends and his memory is wiped. But beyond memory the basic pattern remains.
Clementine wiped Joel from her mind, but in doing so only found herself feeling lonely and lost. Joel too wanders aimlessly, looking for someone and yet not knowing who it is he is looking for. When they come together again, they begin repeating the same basic patterns with which they began. And then the pattern is breached when Mary, the receptionist at Lacuna whose own memories of a relationship with Dr. Mierzwiak were erased at his own instigation, turns over Joel and Clementine’s files complete with their voice recordings listing the litany of complaints and resentments they have developed toward each other.
At the beginning of a new relationship, Joel and Clementine confront the ghost of their old relationship, seeing where the end of their renewed pattern leads. This is where the movie breaks with the conventional narrative, having given us the great transcendent romantic reunion of Joel and Clementine who found each other again at Montauk Point despite all of Dr. Mierzwiak’s best efforts, now gives us a confrontation with the causes of the relationship’s failure. The angry painful exchanges that follow don’t give any simple answer to repairing the pattern, but rather show Joel and Clementine deciding to accept all the negatives of their relationship in order to hold on to each other. The final scene of the couple running into the whiteness of the snow projects the ambiguity of their momentary happiness, with their passing out of memory into the white.