Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) calls upon something personal within the viewer. It demands a response from the psyche. It forces the mind to remember the thoughts it has put aside, pushed to the background, and subdued. It asks the viewer to consider their own quieted memories, for better or for worse, and discover the role those events had in shaping who they are. The film can be quirky, sentimental, romantic, depressing, and surreal—but above all, it’s freeing and salutary in its messages about love and experience.
The maze story follows Joel (Jim Carrey), a hapless goof with few social skills who trudges through the monotony of formulaic daily life. On what seems like a whim, he boards a train to Montauk for little reason beyond impulse. There he finds Clementine (Kate Winslet), a breezy and spontaneous girl who ad-libs her way through life. Their staggering imbalance of personalities sparks an instant connection that, as far as they know, came out of thin air.
As it turns out, the couple had a whole relationship prior to this one. Joel soon learns that Clementine hired a memory-erasing company called Lacuna Inc. to wipe him from her brain, and in turn, he retaliates with the same course of action. But while the film spends the bulk of its narrative on the counter-chronological story of Joel and Clementine’s tumultuous relationship, he comes to remember all the reasons he originally loved her. The story becomes that of a man on the run, attempting to protect his memories of Clementine from the erasing technology as he simultaneously re-lives them and watches them vanish. The deeper we follow him to the early days of their relationship, the more passionate the couple becomes. We wind up witnessing the birth and death of their romance at the same time through a stunning and artistic interpretation of the delicate and complicated fabric of memory.
Containing elements of romantic comedy, science fiction, and fantasy, the film is primarily philosophical in nature. It raises the question of whether human experience is little more than the aggregate of a person’s memories, or if experience constructs and defines a person whether they remember it or not. It offers a concept that makes every human stop to think for a second—if we had the technology to delete a memory from our brain, would we? Would erasing a terrible experience make us happier, or would it change who we are? Are our negative experiences just as important to the construction of self as the positives? Would a life of nothing but happy memories really make for a better existence, and would we be the same? Or do the impulses and basic desires within us trump it all?
The core problem with Lacuna’s technology is that while it can zap specific memories out of a person’s brain, it can’t do anything about the natural human impulses that led to that situation in the first place. It functions on a superficial level.
If two longtime friends have a bitter falling out, the experience may alter the way those people interact with others in the future. It may subconsciously influence their openness with people and the way they approach social situations. It leaves marks on instinct and impulse that don’t go away. Fifteen years down the line, they may forget the specific details that led to the falling out, but the subconscious effects of the marred friendship may still be evident in their interactions.
Similar is the case of Joel and Clementine. Though they wiped their brains of each other, their regressive memories reminded them of why they fell in love in the first place. They buried subconscious impulses in their minds, deep enough they couldn’t be erased, and used them to re-discover one another. Even after they find out how their first relationship ended, they choose to move forward and try again. The power of love and experience is what creates the individual, and the film suggests that simply having a spotless mind does not bring eternal sunshine. Memories and feelings are not entwined, and dispatching one doesn’t rid the person of the other. Lacuna’s process is scientifically-administered denial, not a real solution. Wiping wine from a rug doesn’t do anything about the stain.
The added replay of Howard (Tom Wilkinson) and Mary’s (Kirsten Dunst) relationship reiterates this notion. After their affair, Howard (for some reason) kept Mary in his employ, allowing her to see and interact with him on a daily basis. The sparks that birthed their original lust happened again because the seeds were already planted. If anything, it’s arguable that the memory-wiping procedure encourages people to repeat the memories they forgot. They can’t learn from their mistakes or take anything away from the experience, good or bad, so they’re sentenced to follow the natural evolution of their emotions and desires the same way as the first time. The procedure is regressive for people’s emotional growth, though it advertises itself as the opposite.
The film also touches on the theme of regret. When Joel and Clementine are presented with the opportunity to attempt their relationship a second time, Joel is pushed forward after witnessing all the things he did wrong the first time. He learns about her and about himself. And even though they both know the factors that attract them to each other may eventually drive them insane, sacrificing the good times would be worse. Similarly, Mary regrets having the procedure done to remove Howard from her memory, as now she’s forced to relive the heartbreak twice. She then works to destroy the company to prevent anyone else from having to undergo repeated trauma after discovering the truth about their mistake.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shows us that memories aren’t files to be deleted. They are more than simple thoughts stored in the mind, as they shape the core of the self. People need both the good and the bad to learn and grow. Attempting to remove a person’s memories effectively extinguishes that person, as memories are what build people into who they are. Further, the film shows the power of human impulse and nature, as despite their best efforts, Joel and Clementine wind up with each other again, just as Mary returns to Howard. The things that call to us as people can’t be modified by ignorance or denial.