By Peggy Nelson
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – 2004 – dir. Michel Gondry
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004), Jim Carrey plays against his quirky, impulsive type as subdued, quiet Joel, who has either just met, or really wants to forget, Kate Winslet’s quirky, impulsive Clementine. In this inside-out romance, the point-of-view zips around from future to past, and from imagined to real, in a race between the persistence of memory, and the true cost of forgetting.
Who hasn’t thought, after a particularly bad break-up, that it would be better to be able to forget all about it, like nothing ever happened? Joel and Clementine attempt to do just that. Most of the story is related in a surreal picaresque as Joel attempts to erase every last vestige of Clementine from his mind, revisiting every peak and valley of their romantic landscape as things shift and dissolve around him.
In a plot point borrowed from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, we are introduced to Lacuna, Inc., which performs a kind of plastic surgery on the mind, offering to erase specific painful memories for a fee. Joel and Clementine had met as an attraction of opposites, his stability to her spontaneity. They are both creative but manifest it in different ways, Joel in his writing; Clementine in her lifestyle. They’re both a bit lost and a bit found, and complement each other; he offers needed grounding for her flights of fancy, and she buoys him up with new experience. But they have their share of misunderstandings and friction, and after two years and a particularly bad fight, they split. Joel is distraught. And then he learns that Clementine has decided to have “the procedure;” to erase her memories of him, to leapfrog over the pain and commence the “moving on” portion of her life. At which point Joel decides to have the procedure too, and the movie begins.
After collecting every knickknack, photo, and journal entry that referred to her in any way, Joel arrives at Lacuna for an MRI-like evaluation where clusters of emotional memories are targeted for erasure later that evening. The actual procedure will be done at his home, so when he wakes up he will not even be reminded that he went to Lacuna. That night, the team shows up at Joel’s apartment, fits him with electrodes, gives him a sedative, and commences work, zapping dots on a computer screen in the manner of tech support rebooting a hard drive. Most of what we learn about Joel and Clementine comes from this session, a series of remembered highs and lows, briefly experienced by Joel one more time before disappearing forever. Outside Joel’s head, in his apartment, the Lacuna receptionist (Kristin Dunst), who is dating Mark Ruffalo’s technician, comes over and the party begins, as the computer can take care of most of the work by itself. But then, mid-procedure, Joel changes his mind.
Without completely regaining consciousness, Joel realizes that he doesn’t want to lose these memories after all. Despite the pain, they are what he has left of Clementine, and without them, he will be less of a person, a sad, dry husk without even the memory of the complicated yet enervating spirit he loved. So he starts “running:” dream-Joel grabs dream-Clementine and proceeds to try to hide her in parts of his memory where she never was: he is four years old under the table. He is seven, fighting with the boys in the neighborhood. He is fifteen, masturbating to adult comics. He is 28, walking through November woods. Joel and Clementine caper through a series of absurdly comic and sad situations in various sizes and costumes, in an effort to outrace the computer. But computers tend to be efficient given specific targets, and mnemonic environments dissolve and morph with dream-logic into dream-bits, becoming scattered and meaningless and safe.
The title of the film comes from a line in “Eloisa to Abelard” (http://www.monadnock.net/poems/eloisa.html) , an 18 th-century epistolary poem by Alexander Pope. Eloisa and Abelard (known by various spellings) are the real-life characters in one of history’s most tragic romances. Abelard was a celebrated scholar in 12th century France, and Heloise his much younger star pupil. They fell in love over ideas but her family disapproved; they were found out and Abelard was castrated for his trouble. And yet, that did not end the affair. They never met again, but many years later, when they were abbess and monk, respectively, they began a correspondence that resulted one of the most beautiful, resonant and sensuous meditations on love and loss in Western literature. In Pope’s poem, Eloisa begs to have her memories of Abelard replaced with thoughts of God instead, to have her slate wiped clean – her pain still physical despite the years and miles. The “spotless mind” she postulates would be filled with the “eternal sunshine” of spirit – or at the very least it would not be saturated with the endless rain of longing. This story has a particular appeal to Kaufman, who also enacted it with marionettes in Being John Malkovich (dir. Spike Jonze, 1999).
Kaufman’s surreal, introspective scripts tend to focus on a downbeat, slightly neurotic leading man, often a writer of some kind, who shies away from any actual leading, and who tends to think about the script of his life from the outside, perhaps not unlike Kaufman himself. Left to his own devices a character like this might spiral endlessly down the rabbit hole of his own worries, as in Kaufman’s self-directed static epic Synecdoche, New York (2008). But in Eternal Sunshine, director Michel Gondry’s experience with fast-paced, pop-inflected music videos infuses the tale with needed movement, bringing both the humor and the deeper philosophical issues into sharper contrast and better balance.
Jim Carrey’s gift for physical comedy is here judiciously restrained; Gondry never lets the slapstick overwhelm the script, any more than he lets the metaphysics sink it. Instead, as he amps Kaufman up, he tones Carrey down: the scenes jump forward and back in time, and in and out of fantasy, transposing both manic movement and philosophical paradox into a satisfyingly conceptual action-adventure.
And, of course, a romance. It turns out that there are more than two unreliable narrators in the tale, and the twists and turns become so tightly interwoven yet messily realistic that some viewers might want to see the film twice to sort it all out. Love is a probability cloud of many possible states and orbits. And while stories may trace their trajectories through time, we yearn to stop and touch. Happily ever after, or ever after at all, will be up to Joel and Clementine, or what you imagine them to be. The film stops where stories should: reality, after all, requires more than a rhetorical flourish.