Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson
While memories can serve as our greatest tools in remembering the greatest moments life has to offer, it can also allow the painful ones to endure for far longer than we wish. It comes as an equally blissful and agonizing double-edged sword. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind postulates what can happen if this potential pain could be circumvented entirely and with this wacky premise, it creates a spellbinding and emotionally impactful story.
When trying to make amends with his ex-girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), Joel (Jim Carrey) sees that she no longer recognizes him and has moved on with another relationship. After some digging, he learns Clementine used a company specializing in wiping someone’s memory and decides to utilize them as well.
Breakups are simply the worst, even if you see them coming. Dedicating so much time to an individual only for it to result in a separation feels like such a waste. You’re left to ponder the opportunity cost of being with that person, even if good moments occurred prior to the split. These breakups happen every day and many need to find a way to move on, which would be easier if memories of the other person did not consistently infiltrate your mind. The concept introduced in this film takes an approach many would pay for in order to fully rid their thoughts of someone no longer in their future. The incredible success found in this particular feature, however, comes from where it takes its concept and then further explores the human psyche.
As Joel signed up for this process, he approached the practitioners much like any doctor’s clinic and he happened to do it at one of their busiest times. The process of eliminating specific memories, as indicated in the film, popularly occurs at the new year and Valentine’s Day, which makes complete sense considering not having a pair on those days could be painful. It solidifies the prevalence of this concept, but through Joel’s experience, we get to see what occurs from the patient’s perspective through this process and how difficult it may be to change one’s mind once it all begins.
Diving into Joel’s mind, we follow him through the different moments he spent with Clementine, from the first interaction to the instances where their love peaked. Through this experience, Joel serves as both an active participant but also a bystander watching moments replay right before him with a representation of Clementine with him the entire time. Reliving those moments for Joel certainly works a number on him since he wants to stop the process but cannot do so with his physical body essentially shut down while the practitioners try to erase the memories. The film then shifts to Joel trying to hide the imaginative Clementine from the practitioners within his mind, thus creating some revelatory conversations and where this film fully hits its stride.
From the outside, we never know all of the struggles a couple experiences but we get to see it all with Joel and Clementine. This dive into his memories displays what made him initially attracted to Clementine from the beginning and what kept them together even through their initial struggles. In a way, Joel has a dialogue with himself about his shortcomings and what drove their relationship to its breaking point. This allows Joel to look back at moments where he acted rashly or with indignation without knowing the ultimate consequence. Things occurring in the heat of the moment get another fresh look to demonstrate the ridiculousness of it all in a meaningful manner. In the same vein, it turns the mirror on us to reflect on moments where we believed ourselves to be in the right only for it to be the wrong position down the road. Joel and Clementine did not break up because of one specific moment, but rather a collection of events culminating into the final breaking point. This typically works the same way in other relationships and going through this journey with Joel allowed me to look into my past to think of those moments in my life.
Jim Carrey certainly has built his reputation for comedy, but the 2000s saw him dip his toes into dramas to exceptional results. He enjoys portraying over the top characters but his turn as Joel has him displaying an admirable level of restraint, as he allows Kate Winslet as Clementine to be the one with more chaotic energy. These two team up exceptionally well together in this feature by showing both sides of what occurred in this relationship even through the lens of Joel’s conscience. Carrey anchors the film while Winslet becomes this elusive figure and someone we don’t want to let go for both of their sakes, which only gets more difficult when each memory begins to fade.
The partnership of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry in crafting this story and visualizing it deserves nothing but praise seeing as they take such a complex idea and present it in a matter not needing much exposition. The visual language on display makes everything clear as to what is occurring within Joel’s mind and what the practitioners are doing in order to complete their service. Kaufman integrates his stellar dialogue to really dig into the relationship as Gondry presents the visceral struggle occurring within the conscience. Transporting the audience to the different moments between Joel and Clementine’s relationship makes for some stunning shots and sequences in order to reinforce everything crumbling down around Joel and just how hard he is willing to fight to hold onto this love he initially wanted to eradicate.
Truly a wondrous and pensive experience, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combines some incredible artists in order to tell a touching story. It imbues science-fiction ideas with deeply human emotions in order to fully grasp the feelings of these characters as they navigate the plunge into one man’s psyche. Deeply moving in moments and saddening when seeing the impact of losing memories can have on someone and whether this shortcut in life remains worth the cost.