Cult Column: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

“Random thoughts for Valentine’s Day 2004: today is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind begins with a miserable monologue from Joel (Jim Carrey), who – in an act of out-of-character spontaneity – ditches his fellow commuters and catches a train out to Montauk. On a freezing beach he spots a woman with blue hair and a bright orange hoodie (Kate Winslet), who pops up again in a café and once again on a train, where she enthusiastically introduces herself as Clementine. Drawn to each other despite their ostensibly dissimilar personalities, the two end up going home together. It seems their meeting signals the beginning of an exciting new relationship.

Except (and here’s the chance for a huge spoiler warning!) Joel and Clementine aren’t strangers. In fact, they were once a couple – though neither of them could know it. For Eternal Sunshine is a covert sci-fi movie, in which the New York firm Lacuna Inc. offers wounded lovers the opportunity to have their mind expunged of all memories of their former partner. After a relationship with Joel turned sour (oh, so very sour) Clementine had Joel scrubbed from her mind; Joel, devastated upon discovering this, decided to undergo the procedure himself.

This is where Eternal Sunshine’s non-linear story picks up – in Joel’s apartment, with Lacuna employees Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst) getting to work on the sleeping Joel. Most of the film’s action takes place in its protagonist’s head as he recollects the relationship in reverse order. But here’s the kicker: as Joel revisits the memories that are being drawn out of his head, it dawns on him that he might not want them erased after all…

Director Michel Gondry finds astonishingly imaginative ways of visualising the big ideas contained in Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar-winning screenplay. This is a film in which time and space bend drastically, in which heartbreak becomes a crumbling house. Add to this John Brion’s yearning score and two exceptionally sympathetic lead performances, and what you’re left with is a pretty much perfect recipe for tears.

Which isn’t to say that that Eternal Sunshine succumbs to easy sentimentality. Kaufman doesn’t shy away from showing the uglier side to his central relationship. Clementine, who initially seems like the archetypal manic pixie dream girl, turns out to work as a deconstruction of exactly that – especially as the ugly results of Joel’s idealisation of her become apparent. The subtext is that these are two people struggling with mental illness in no position to support one another, and that the end of their relationship was always inevitable.

What’s so fascinating about the film, then, is that it’s not the cynical break-up film its opening lines suggest it to be. At the end, when they realise what has happened and that their new relationship is in all likelihood doomed to fail, Joel and Clementine are willing to try again. This is Eternal Sunshine’s admirably subversive, hopeful message – that moments of genuine human connection are worth the risk of subsequent heartbreak, that we’d rather live with painful memories that contain glimmers of love than enjoy the blissful ignorance of the spotless mind.

 

Image: Focus Features. 

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