To forget. To want to forget. To be forgotten. These are common experiences we share, but ones that are rarely explored in the form of visual narrative. They’re not only abstract, but they’re also inherently the opposite of the things we most associate with cinema, a pictorial medium. A shot of an empty room still evokes loneliness through the memory of a person, be it a character in the story or someone we know, and heartbreak tends to manifest as the physical display of emotions, seen through the actions of the performers and on their faces. Yet Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to explore the part of those experiences we don’t actually see. Not the space in the room, but the absence that causes it, and the threat of that absence becoming permanent. Our desire for a lack of emotional connection when the memories associated with it are too painful. It cuts a hole through the fabric on which the film is projected, and plays around in that empty space.
Jim Carrey’s Joel Barish enlists the services of Lacuna Inc. to help him forget his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Krucsynski (Kate Winslet), after she did the same thing to him. Through an association-based procedure, the company (whose name happens to mean ‘gap’) erases a specific person or event from your memory for a fee, and also erases any trace that you underwent the procedure. Like Memento before it, Eternal Sunshine begins long after the central events driving the characters have taken place, allowing us to unravel the unknown mystery alongside Joel, only we don’t even know it yet. He meets Clementine on a train, and the two are immediately drawn to one another despite having little in common, and so begins their quirky little messed up romance…. again. As the film progresses, we get to see them take their second shot at a relationship (unbeknownst to them), and we also get to go back. Way back to when they first dated, to their two-year relationship, then to their breakup, and eventually to them deciding to wipe their memories, and we don’t necessarily get to experience it in that order. While it jumps around in time in an almost random fashion, it maintains a concise, almost synaptic momentum, with each memory triggering a related one before it.
The film uses Joel’s two-step procedure as the basis for its structure. First, he collects gifts, diary entries and other objects that he associates with Clementine, and his responses to each one are recorded and mapped. Later, Lacuna employees sneak in to his house and delete each one of those memories from his brain, and in either case, we get to be part of the process from Joel’s perspective. In fact, much of the actual first step is shown to be one of the first memories being erased, bit by bit. Faces, words and other details in the scene begin to blur the same way real memories fade, and we move backwards (more or less) through time, as Joel is forced to re-live each memory of Clementine he’s about to erase forever, erasing a part of himself in the process.
Because the film deals with such an abstract concept, Michel Gondry is given license to create the most bizarre visual sequences. They feel real enough to look like flashbacks, but they’re also uncanny enough to feel like dreams as soon as they start being targeted. They exist in a sort of in-between space, which gets further complicated when Joel begins to fight the process by injecting Clementine into memories she wasn’t originally a part of. That’s where things start to get really weird, but also really clear. It’s here that unlike most romantic films, and even most cerebral ones, we get to the very root of what makes our protagonist tick; the childhood experiences that defined them. Pixar’s Inside Out calls these experiences ‘core memories,’ and while the association in that film is far more direct (the childhood memories are more directly related to Riley’s personality, as she’s still only twelve), they’re much more buried in the case of Joel Barish, and slipping Clementine into them in order to preserve her memory may not be as random as they seem. She’s dropped right in the middle of moments such as baby Joel being bathed in the sink by his mother, or the moment where he gets a look up the skirt of an adult woman he’s infatuated with, and the time he’s bullied by a bunch of other kids. In the third of those memories, he’s rescued by a little girl who takes on the voice and eventually the appearance of Clementine. Each of the three memories relies on some sort of feminine comfort, and the first two are each maternal in their own way (perhaps even Oedipal), but the third has the most direct correlation to the events of the film, because it’s about a girl saving Joel from his miserable existence.
Whether the memory occurred as it was shown, or whether Joel never really had anybody come save him, the substitution of Clementine to make it so that she rescues him from eternal humiliation is perhaps one of the most important moments in the film. If you’ve spent enough time talking about movie tropes on the internet, you’ve probably come across the phrase ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ as a way to describe ‘quirky’ and upbeat female characters who exist solely to give meaning to the lives of boring, brooding, or overly cautious male shut-ins like Joel. While the change in her hair colour serves to keep us aware of where we are in the story’s chronology, it also serves to help give her the appearance of one of these characters, even though she’s a fair bit more, and their relationship is endowed with an almost harshly realistic quality. She talks about how too many guys consider her a “concept” or how they think she’s going to “complete” them, or make them feel “alive,” lambasting the idea that she’s one of those characters, the same characters that give men like Joel the idea that that’s what romance really is. Some sort of completion through another person. For Joel however, that’s exactly what it is. Well, part of it anyway. While she helps fill up a hole in his life, thus fulfilling the textual purpose of characters of her ilk, she also isn’t enough to keep him happy or afloat, because he’s not a particularly happy person. She’s certainly a flawed character, but her flaws aren’t so much the problem as is the fact that she exists to occupy an empty space in his life. She’s her own person, and she even says as much, but Joel still needs someone to rescue him.
To call Clementine a Manic Pixie Dream Girl wouldn’t be pointing out shallow writing like it would elsewhere. After all, she’s considered to be one of the prominent deconstructions of the trope, even though it was only given a name three years later. However, just like you can’t really deconstruct a superhero movie without first being a superhero movie, Clementine still very much falls under the umbrella, but she doesn’t feel like the only one being deconstructed. Eternal Sunshine feels as much a deconstruction of men like Joel as it does women like Clementine. An exploration of the kind of male characters that fall for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the first place, which is where his early memories come in to play.
Perhaps the line that best defines Joel’s character is a moment of voiceover as Clementine notices him for the first (second) time. “Why do I fall in love with every woman I see who shows me the least bit of attention?” It’s indicative of how desperate he is for a woman to come into his life and sweep him off his feet. That sentiment sounds like it’s reserved for ‘chick flicks’ and romance novels, but it’s implicit in more than its fair share of male-focused romantic stories as well. It’s just never stated explicitly, and the sweeping is figurative. What it really means is emotional rescue, both from one’s circumstances, and oneself. And what makes this film the perfect one in which to explore that concept is that we get to see the math. We get to see the breakdown of the relationship, and each individual instance that leads to its demise as we trace it all in reverse. What’s more, we get to see Lacuna employee Patrick (Elijah Wood) sneakily do the exact same things that Joel did, using his very words to get close to Clementine like it’s something he saw in a movie.
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.
The film gets its title from Alexander Pope’s Eloisa To Abelard, a romantic epistolary based on the affair between Héloïse d'Argenteuil and Peter Abélard, which is said to have taken place a full five centuries before the poem was penned. After the events described in the poem however, Héloïse’s family supposedly had Abélard castrated before sending them both off to live solitary lives as monks. Weirdly enough, that almost makes the title even more fitting since it deals with such lonely characters, and a male lead who sees himself as emasculated and powerless. It’s also part of what made Jim Carrey perfect for the role at the time.
The Jim Carrey that most often comes to mind is the Jim Carrey of The Mask, Dumb and Dumber and the Ace Ventura movies. The mid-'90s ‘rubberface’ comedian whose over the top theatrics cemented a specifically sketch and stand-up style of acting in the international mainstream. It had a juvenile quality to it (or a certain immaturity, if we’re being cynical) yet none of it was ever random. There’s a thought process to every detail of everything he does, from the sliding door to the rhino birth, and you can practically see the wheels turning in his head during his transformations in Me, Myself & Irene and before he improvises the most annoying sound in the world on the spot. While there’s an operatic quality that separates his comedic work from ‘reality’ as we interpret it, every character decision he makes is based in that same reality despite the outcome. Much like his Elvis impersonation, every movement and facial expression is drawn from a certain kind of attitude, and his cockier and more verbose characters have an air of superiority about them.
He took his hairline back a few inches to look like he had a bigger brain in I Love You Phillip Morris, and Ace Ventura spends most of his screen time leaning over ever so slightly, as if he’s talking down to everyone. He’s a guy who clearly knows what he’s doing, and in films like The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, he’s allowed to explore the very nature of his performances (and his need to constantly perform) in an existential sense. By the turn of the century, audiences had seen him perform on every inch of the spectrum of expression and movement. They only thing they hadn’t really seen him do was hold back.
During his 2010 appearance on Inside The Actors Studio, the same one where he did that spot-on Elvis impersonation, he also mentions that one of the things that drew him to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the opportunity to hide in plain sight, almost as if he were doing the opposite of what he was known for. He was acting, most certainly, but he was no longer performing. One of the things that didn’t make it to the broadcast, however, was the story of his breakup prior to agreeing to do this film. You can Google the details of who and why, I’m afraid I don’t indulge gossip and can only really attest to what was said at the taping (I was there). Carrey recalled that his heartbreak had put him in place where he felt like he could no longer be creative, so he became a recluse for a while and decided to stay away from the public eye. His break from acting, while short lived, was an intentional decision, and one that he felt was necessary at the time. What helped him get out of it, however, was the opportunity to do Eternal Sunshine, which allowed him to channel his emotions, and let him work through his rough period, coming to an understanding of everything he had been through while dealing with memories he didn’t want to have. On the flip side however, Michel Gondry made a concentrated effort to hire extras that looked a whole lot like Carrey’s most recent ex, and even cast a woman who bore a resemblance to her as Joel’s most recent fling after Clementine. Whether or not it was the original intent, these scenes never made it into the move, but if you’re wondering what Carrey’s process for getting into character was, well, now you know! Either way, the result is one of the most subtle and withdrawn performances from an otherwise outwardly actor in recent memory. It’s one of several commendable performances in the film, and it’s also perhaps its greatest strength.
That being said, the film feels cathartic, and knowing the above information puts things into a new light when it comes to its lead actor. You only really get to see him do the Jim Carrey ‘thing’ but once, when he pours ketchup on his neck and pretends to be dead, and it’s quite uncharacteristic of Joel, but it’s also like he’s learning to really be goofy around Clementine. I like to think it’s also Carrey learning to be goofy around the camera again, even if he doesn’t really need to.
The original ending involved Joel and Clementine trying again before breaking up once more, and the cycle was meant to keep repeating. Thank goodness writer Charlie Kaufman finally got to explore his existential dread in Synecdoche, New York, because I’m not sure I’d have been able to handle an ending as terrifyingly dour for Joel and Clementine. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happy though. Hopeful? Perhaps, but it’s sweet with a tinge of bitterness because of the experiences that Joel and Clementine have endured, not to mention the shock of having their lost memories narrated to them by their past selves on tape. Elsewhere, supporting characters Stan (Mark Ruffalo), Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and Dr. Meirzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) find themselves in a similar tussle, though theirs is a bit more along ethical lines, and the film comes down firmly against the entire idea of memory-zapping in the first place. But that’s never its real intent. We’re never going to have this technology at our disposal, and so our best bet is to confront our fears and our pain instead of letting it lie dormant, in the hopes that we might be able to find some sort of peace of mind without depending on anybody else for it. Wherever it stands ethically, it also comes down on the side of holding on to the good stuff in order to deal with the bad.
After all, it’s our experiences that make us who we are.