Movies That Everyone Should See: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
“Obedient slumbers that can wake and weep;”
Desires compos’d, affections ever ev’n,
Tears that delight, and sighs that waft to Heav’n.
Grace shines around her with serenest beams,
And whisp’ring angels prompt her golden dreams.
For her th’ unfading rose of Eden blooms,
And wings of seraphs shed divine perfumes,
For her the Spouse prepares the bridal ring,
For her white virgins hymeneals sing,
To sounds of heav’nly harps she dies away,
And melts in visions of eternal day.

- “Eloisa to Abelard”, Alexander Pope, 1717

Joel is… feeling off.

On Valentine’s Day, he spontaneously plays hooky from work, and takes a train to the beach.

It’s February. It’s cold. He’s alone.

He’s painfully shy.

There he meets the extroverted Clementine. Clad in a blaring orange hoodie, hair dyed blue, impulsive and forthright, Clementine is his polar opposite.

And in this case, opposites attract.

After talking together on the train ride home, the two discover they’re heading for the same stop. They live near each other. When Joel offers her a ride home from the station, a romance begins.

But “Eternal Sunshine” is definitely not your typical romance.

It’s a romance embedded in a sci-fi movie with a touch of comedy from the mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman is an idiosyncratic genius with a penchant for brilliant, cryptic works. He began his career with National Lampoon, did work on a number of television shows for the FOX television network, then launched his big screen career with the enigmatic “Being John Malkovich”. His other works include “Adaptation” and the joyously indecipherable “Synecdoche, New York”.

He and director Michel Gondry had previously collaborated on 2001′s “Human Nature”, a movie that didn’t register much, but which did lay the groundwork for future collaborations. Along with performance artist Pierre Bismuth, the three of them laid out the brilliant and imaginative story that Kaufman worked into the script for “Eternal Sunshine”.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” quickly moves from its romantic opening to the sci-fi concept. In a narrative cut, Clementine has broken it off with Joel and is moving on in a drastic way. She’s gone to “Lacuna, Inc.”, a company which specializes in eradicating painful memories. She’s voluntarily had all traces of Joel erased from her mind.

It’s a painful addendum to the rejection of a break up.

It’s not only over, she doesn’t even want to think of him anymore.

The news is too difficult for Joel, too hurtful. He decides to undergo the procedure himself.

As Joel undergoes the process, “Eternal Sunshine” lets its style spread its wings. In a non-linear, surrealistic fashion, the memories that Joel has of Clementine flash through his mind. While inattentive Lacuna reps work on eliminating Clementine from his memory, Joel is cognizant of what’s happening. He recognizes it. Resists. He changes his mind and realizes he doesn’t want to forget Clementine after all.

A prescient Joel watches himself undergoing the procedure. From within his memories, he stays aware of what’s happening to him. Scenes change and dissolve as he runs from memory to memory, trying to get ahead of the process. He and Clementine hustle through the darkness of his mind, chased by a spotlight as if they’re on a jailbreak. She vanishes again and again. He attempts to hide her in the recesses of his mind, deep in his subconscious, where the scientists don’t know to look for his memories of her.

It’s a unique and inventive chase. From on high, scientists pursue the protagonist and his girlfriend through the labyrinth of his own subconscious. His fears and insecurities and childhood memories unfold. The movie presents a stream of consciousness style visual narrative replete with frequently changing settings and wardrobes. Joel himself often changes to reflect the spirit of the memory he and Clementine have found themselves in.

As the memories unfold, we’re given a complete portrait of Joel and Clementine’s relationship. A complete portrait. The tentative excitement of their explorative first days together. The bitterness and contempt present as their relationship disintegrated. The irrationality. The volatility. The spitefulness. But they also show the sweet memories. The love. The contentment. The fun. The tenderness.

It’s an honest and thorough look at the state of being in love. You’re never as vulnerable as you are when you’re with someone. Love is a risk to your heart, to your psyche. There are great rewards, but in order to attain them, you do have to put yourself at risk. By coupling, you expose your insecurities to another, and that can be frightening. Relationships also tend to end bitterly. It’s a rare, rare, extremely rare breakup that’s amicable and painless… but even staying together can be a battle.

Apologies to Erich Segal, but the truth is that love means having to say you’re sorry frequently.

But Joel and Clementine are irresistibly drawn to each other.

The heart wants what the heart wants. The movie reveals that the narrative has been non-linear, and that the opening on the beach where the two first met was actually where they both met again, after having their memories wiped. The opening romance was actually an unbeknownst rekindling. It threatens to be short-lived, however, when the two are exposed to the each other’s pre-procedure confessional tapes, which of course are an unflinching exposure to every painful thing the other would say in an unguarded anonymous moment.

And yet, even after the truth is revealed to them, the two choose to pursue their relationship again.

Ultimately, “Sunshine” affirms that in spite of the pain and risk, love is worth taking chances.  It advocates for an open and unafraid heart. A leap of faith.

Which would be brilliant enough, but “Sunshine” touches on so many other potential thinking points. Are people destined to be with each other? Is there such a thing as a soulmate? Is the game of life and love really an incarnational game of hide and seek?

One of my favorite ruminations though, is on the ethics of all of this. The Lacuna, Inc. mind erasing team is almost entirely composed of morally compromised individuals. Profiteers from pain who wish to wash the mental hands of the consequences of the choices and actions of life. Hypocrites and skeevy snakes and subjects of the procedures themselves, they get their comeuppance by the picture’s end… you can not circumvent karma.

Even without the Lacuna staff representing the procedure poorly, however, is erasing painful memories something people would want? If we could clean the spots off of the mind… make it spotless… would that truly be a joyous thing? Is it our pain that is truly what makes us who we are? Is it our mistakes that define us? Wouldn’t the removal of our regrets and the cleansing of our unpleasant memories be tantamount to anaesthetizing ourselves from reality?

You cannot inure yourself from pain if you wish to live. Complete and constant bliss is a fool’s paradise.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a brilliant work of genius.

It’s inventive, stylistic, creative, and original. It doesn’t merely present “Food for Thought”, it lays out a first class buffet. It juggles comedy, science fiction and romance effortlessly. Remarkable visual effects are involved, but they serve the story as opposed to the story being set up to serve them. The movie evokes a wide range of emotions and can give rise to introspection and contemplation… self-reflection. Plus of course, an evaluation of your relationships.

The ingenious script is given life by superb acting and auteur level direction, backed by a wonderful, quirky, melancholy score.

Kaufman and Gondry, along with their collaborator, Pierre Bismuth, were given Academy Awards for their screenplay. Kate Winslet was nominated for Best Actress, but did not win (Hillary Swank, “Million Dollar Baby”). Jim Carrey wasn’t nominated, and yet, I find this movie to be easily – far and away - the greatest offering of his career. The movie wasn’t even nominated for best picture, which is a terrible, terrible oversight as far as I’m concerned. I look over the nominees that year (“Million Dollar Baby”, “The Aviator”, “Ray”, “Sideways” and “Finding Neverland”) and “Sideways” is the only one I love wholeheartedly. And as much as I love that movie, this is a better film… a much better film.

But perhaps it’s serves as an example of how true greatness is often not recognized immediately.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a funny film, a touching film, and an extremely well made film. The script is incredible, the acting is authentic and the directing is superb. It’s an artistic, emotional and astonishing movie. It speaks to us personally, yet also speaks to the human condition.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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48 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

  1. Awesome review about one of my favorite movies. I did not quite get it at first watching and found it rather dull (partly because English is not my first language and I have never been in a relationship :P). But the second time I watched it I focused on the dialogue and I totally fell in love with it, and I could really relate to the main character. Then I watched it for the third time and it became one of my top 10 movie :)

    • Its a film worthy of such an honor, for sure. I’m glad you gave it a second chance and you were able to connect with it! :D

      Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for the compliment! :D

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