Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Lacuna is a company that puts a gap in the manuscript of your life. If you want to forget a trauma, a beloved pet, or even a whole person, you can do so. Possible side effects include a kind of wistful longing, the feeling of being a stranger in your own life, having to choose between two paths you recognize but don't know. Patients may find themselves sitting in the crossroads wondering how they got there, living life like a dream they can’t remember, or someone else's grand adventure. Ideally, they won’t even want to.

We have real-life Lacunas that differ only by efficiency. Drugs are becoming increasingly effective. Alcohol is the more time-honored ticket to oblivion. A romcom in which two conflicted lovers try to forget each other by hammering on actual drugs wouldn’t be more surprised with itself than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that with all the technology in the world, the best thing we can think to do with it is forget each other. Lacuna is the device that makes the film work on an essential human level. It's never explained as a scientific contraption, but as an emotional one. Eternal Sunshine is a fantasy only in the sense that the fake elements enable us to do the things we wish we could. It becomes a universal truth of our triumphs, and our troubles. Charlie Kaufman has written the 2001: A Space Odyssey of longing.

His screenwriting is like modern Shakespeare. His movies explore their characters with the same internal relevance as the chess pieces Shakespeare moves around the emotional board in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; like the bard, he imagines our dreams as opportunities to tell us about who we really are, or would be with enough power to act on all our ambitions. So it is with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), when he doesn’t know why he ditched work for a trip to Montauk  – he is bedazzled with self, moved by some spiritual desire to a place he recognizes but doesn’t know. He meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and gets swept up in her candid manhandling into a spontaneous relationship. For folks that have no more inkling of each other’s happiness than their own, the combination of Clementine’s candor and Joel’s submission gives them the easy grace of old lovers. They live a whole life together in a moment.

So why doesn’t it work out between them? Is she too flighty, or Joel too listless? They destruct over a difference of natures. Impulsive Clementine wants to wipe the trauma from her mental record, and not deal with the post-trauma. That’s where Lacuna comes in.

It’s Valentine’s Day, the busiest day for memory-wiping services according to bouncy secretary Mary Svevo (Kirsten Dunst). Clementine undergoes the procedure. Joel hates that she doesn’t recognize him. He agrees to reciprocate her impulse with the same procedure, to forget not only her but everything he ever thought of her, so that to him she will be worse than dead, not even the mental memorabilia of a moment in time. Memory wipe technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) arrive to collect the evidence of Clementine from Joel’s house. They run computer simulations of his brain patterns as he feels a feeling for each of the objects that he associates with Clementine. They knock him unconscious, hook him up to a helmet as big as a colander (Bill Waterson’s Calvin would have used it for brain augmentation) and run back the simulations to erase Clementine in reverse.

These technicians, who swoop in and play with dreams like techno-chic fairies that do house calls, counterpoint Joel’s internal struggle with their own ambivalence. They're a symptom of our disease of not feeling for each other anymore. What's Joel struggling with? When viewed from inside, as Eternal Sunshine makes him do, a psyche “cured” of its regret seems apocalyptic and hopeless and sterile (how much of your life do you have to remove, before nothing hurts you?). The dream janitors also have their Oberon: the grandiose mentor figure of Lacuna’s founder, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), whom they have to call in after Joel has second thoughts, once he sees the anesthetized dystopia of his world without the memory of Clementine. In internal rebellion, Joel takes the memorial Clementine by the hand and makes off with her into the unknown wilds of his subconscious. Kaufman writes this buddy romance with a sinister paranoia, like if A Midsummer Night’s Dream took place in Gilliam’s Brazil. Jung grew a forest there for Joel to navigate, planted a Minotaur in his heart, fed his past back to him in haunting perspective pieces of Joel’s eccentric anxieties and Kaufman wrote it down for us. Michel Gondry sets it in motion by directing one of the best scripts this century.

The movie needs the miniature simplicity of Gondry's imagination; I don't mean to downplay his role in Eternal Sunshine or give all the credit to Kaufman. But after seeing Gondry's The Green Hornet, or even Be Kind Rewind, it's come to my attention just how much that imagination depends on a good script. I have come to see Kaufman emerge from this movie as the more essential creator.

The weirdness creates a romantic comedy in reverse, reverse because rather than the romance being paced by love or compatibility, they are assessed and made eternal by loops in time, guided by a weirdo’s inner omniscience over the events of his own life. The walls of Joel’s memories collapse and reform around his perception of them, as he relives his failed relationship with increasing fear that he’s unraveling the best parts of himself. Normal conversations turn to psychotic nightmares with skins of featureless faces, with rooms that become the dim fourth walls of unrelated ones that lead Joel into a new memory as onto a different sound-stage. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras gets in close with a handheld camera and flashlight as Joel takes Clementine by the hand and tries to save her from erasure, like a road picture that occasionally devolves into an exorcism (or the reverse). She may be his demon, but Joel is worried that he’ll miss being possessed.

So Eternal Sunshine establishes a reality bound only to Joel’s perception of it. When he fears as a child fears, Carrey becomes four feet tall in a forced perspective kitchen like a nightmare of the 60s in your parents’ house. The whole world fades when he doesn’t know what to do, as though he's lost the object permanence of his own spirit.

Kaufman achieves this perspective with humor, making even the real world a semblance of realism disguised as romantic science fiction. Darren Aronofsky somehow made several timelines seem pointlessly brief in the disjunctive The Fountain. Kaufman takes only one and makes it a breathless eternity. Films like Kate & Leopold and The Lakehouse put their lovers at a great physical distance that makes their plight to see each other literal, their inevitable coming-together. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind knows the unsure hearts of people well enough to make nearness the greatest gulf two lovers will ever cross. It is both the most romantic film of the 21st century, and also a mythologization of loneliness.

Every performance operates on its intended level, each a foil to every other in Kaufman’s romantic maze, hooking emotional tail-ends to far-flung beginnings, anchoring the temporal locomotion of Carrey and Winslet to their confused and conflicted “present day.” Carrey reminds us just how sad a clown can be, when his nose starts to droop. He turns his signature absurdism against an audience that expects it: he does so by withholding it, behind eyes fortressed by longing. The performer who is normally the singular adrenaline of his films instead rides Winslet’s ambitious energy. Her fast-talking appraisal of anything she encounters pushes the boundaries of social decency in the real world, and the boundary between a film and its makers in Joel’s self-aware mental realms. Her nervous twinkling bounces off Carrey like a pinball. They’re the "opposites attract" adage in reverse, each playing who you might expect the other to in paradoxically perfect compliment. I would say they should star in other romcoms, but Kaufman makes it seem like Eternal Sunshine counts as all of them. Dunst is underrated as the secretary with a boss fetish who ends up confronting the secret longing she's hidden from herself in her own life; in a way, as an outsider bound by the same pain and unavailable for redemption, she is even more desolated by these events. She's often the first face I think of, when I think of this movie.

The title comes from Alexander Pope, who wrote it on the innocence of the forgetful, and how we forget them. Kaufman’s romantic epic doesn’t take it lying down; as much as the elegiac Pope is like a solemn oath to accepting how your life has turned out, his film is a wild rock anthem to the clawing internal struggle for relevance in one’s own existence. Its crises are living testimonies to mortgage bills and tired eyes, that walk the streets at night wishing for a Lacuna, even if it costs them their sanity. Something essential transpires in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a story not about compatible lovers figuring it out, but about incompatible ones that can’t figure out why exactly they love each other. If they ever did, I suppose we wouldn’t need movies like Kaufman’s. If you don’t think we do anyway then bless you: you’re already one of the eternal sunshine.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Michel Gondry

Charlie Kaufman (story & screenplay)
Michel Gondry (story)
Pierre Bismuth (story)
Joel Barish Jim Carrey
Clementine Kruczynski Kate Winslet
Patrick Elijah Wood
Frank Thomas Jay Ryan
Stan Mark Ruffalo
Mary Kirsten Dunst
Dr. Mierzwiak Tom Wilkinson
Rob David Cross
Carrie Jane Adams

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