Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
“Do I know you?”
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson
Synopsis: A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is an introverted man living an unremarkable life who, one morning on the way to work, impulsively deserts his fellow commuters on the railway station platform to catch a train to Montauk Point. Once there he reflects on the end of a relationship with a former girlfriend called Naomi, and shyly avoids eye contact with a woman on the beach with striking blue hair and an orange sweatshirt. Later, on the train back home, the woman introduces herself as Clementine (Kate Winslet). She believes they’ve met before, but Joel doesn’t believe so. He’s a little overwhelmed by her quirky, borderline-aggressive nature, but he’s also intrigued and attracted in the way that so many polar opposites are, and he goes home with her.
What neither they nor the viewer realise at this point in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the second collaboration between writer Charlie Kaufmann and director Michel Gondry, is that they have met before, and were in fact lovers in a volatile relationship which ultimately failed due to their diverse natures. Clementine became so disillusioned with Joel that she had her memory of him erased, something he only discovers when he comes across a card at the home of mutual friends warning them of the procedure she has undergone and requesting that they refrain from mentioning him to her. Oddly enough, it’s easier to accept the concept of such a procedure being possible — even when it’s performed by a ramshackle outfit run by the avuncular Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) from an office filled with outdated office equipment — than it is to believe that any mutual friends or acquaintances of the recently erased would be capable of not giving the game away at some point. And what about all those little souvenirs of bureaucracy that govern all our lives, whether its next of kin disclosed in medical documents, or named drivers on our motor insurance, for example?
To be honest I don’t think Kaufmann is really asking us to suspend our disbelief in these matters but to simply go with the flow for the sake of the bigger picture. Stung by Clementine’s complete rejection of him, Joel insists that Mierzwiak and his quirky team erase all memories of Clementine from his own mind. This is carried out in Joel’s flat after all traces of Clementine’s presence have been removed and used by erasure boffin Stan (Mark Ruffalo) to pinpoint the locations in Joel’s brain in which his memories of her are stored. It has to be said that Stan and his workmates Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) aren’t exactly the most conscientious of surgeons. Patrick slopes off in the middle of the procedure to visit his girlfriend — who just happens to be Clementine, for whom he fell while she was undergoing the procedure — and Stan and Mary pass the time in Joel’s flat drinking beer, stripping down to their skivvies and dancing on his bed.
While all this is going on, Joel starts to have second thoughts about having Clementine erased from his memory. We follow Joel into his mind as he attempts to hide his last few remaining memories of her in the most remote and inaccessible areas of his memory that he can think of, and it’s here that the film is at its most inventive. Reality and imagination seem to flow in and out of one another the way they do in a dream. Familiar places suddenly defy the laws of nature, physics, gravity and any other applicable science: Joel tries to follow Clementine only to find himself repeatedly approaching his car as she walks off in the opposite direction and the shop signs above his head fade into blankness; rooms miles apart strangely connect so that he can pass seamlessly from one to another; the face of a man proves impossible to find because every time Joel grabs his shoulder and turns him around he’s presented with the back of the man’s head.
Kaufmann seems fascinated by the secrets of the mind, by our perception of reality and of ourselves and others, and how each is coloured by those secrets which remain enticingly locked away. In Being John Malkovich, John Cusack’s puppeteer inhabited the mind of another man, while in Adaptation the minds of two men resided within one body. Here, one man races around his own mind, inhabiting memories that fade and crumble around him, It’s a mind-blowing concept, and no doubt Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a movie that requires repeated viewings in order to appreciate every subtle nuance of Kaufmann’s invention. What he reflects upon here is the habit we all have of erasing the bad memories of a lost relationship and of enhancing the good ones. We choose to forget, which is what makes us prone to repeating our mistakes. But then, maybe we repeat our mistakes because they are mistakes worth making. That it is those wonderful moments of complete and utter happiness found somewhere within every failed relationship which make those mistakes worthwhile and mould us into the people we have each become. And, let’s face it: given the chance, plenty of us would renew old relationships for a taste of those perfect moments even though we know that they have no chance of lasting.
Jim Carrey once again gives a convincing straight performance, playing against type as a reclusive and introverted man. Some might say he and Winslet don’t really work as a couple, but that’s the whole idea behind the casting choice. A physically and emotionally compatible couple just wouldn’t make any sense. Kaufmann’s clever script is matched by Gondry’s energetic direction and keeps us interested even as we wonder just what the hell is going on. Only the device by which the story has Joel and Clementine discover the truth behind their attraction for one another rings a little hollow.