In truth, I always thought this film had a well-suited title for its material. It was rather unusual and unique. There was not much more to think about otherwise. But when you actually think about it, whether or not you consider Alexander Pope’s poem from which it originates from, there is great truth that can be gleaned from this phrase “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.” In fact, it’s truth that points to the heart and soul of Charlie Kaufman’s story.
As humans who love and love to love, there is also the equally likely chance that we might lose that love, or have it come crashing back down upon us. Thus, if we lived with a mind never cluttered with such a thing as love and all the complexities, pain, and emotions that go with it, then could we not be forever happy? There would be nothing to darken our mood, as ignorance truly is bliss. Except in that statement, there is something inherently wrong, because to be human means to be thinking and feeling creatures of reason. Take that away from us and we are little more than animals. But with our minds, we can do so much that is worthwhile. Perhaps we get hurt in the process, and yet that brings to mind another long overused epithet. It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. It’s a paraphrasing of Tennyson I think.
This is a great place to enter into this film — this absurdly idiosyncratic vision of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry. Initially, the story of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a great mess — a great web of confusion. The tone is a bit melancholy only to be injected with a heavy dose of whimsy. A man quite suddenly boards a train and meets a free-spirited girl. It’s a meet-cute, and yet there’s a strange sensation that this is not the first time they have met.
Over time everything begins to fall into place just like memories hidden away in the human mind. In fact, that’s exactly like this film. Joel (Jim Carrey) is a subdued, often lonely man, who decides to get rid of his memories, especially when he learns that his former girlfriend Clementine has done the same. He just wants to be able to get over her. But as part of the process, all his past memories come flooding back from the most recent to the oldest. Each and everyone seems to include Clem in one way or another. It’s quite the strange sensation, although Joel does begin to get used to it. That doesn’t mean he likes it.
He swims in and out of consciousness between the past and then the present that is going on outside his head. The voices inside his head, or more aptly, the voices right outside his head come from two engineers (Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo) from a company in charge of erasing his memories. They create a map of them so they can remove the memories later.
Paranoia sets in as Joel’s past disappears, and he attempts to stop the inevitable erasing of all his recollections. They’re lucid dreams or more like lucid nightmares accompanied by paralysis. However, Joel goes off grid into the deep cavernous expanses of his brain. Entering places where his deepest desires and deep-seated feelings hide. It might be buried in his childhood, humiliating ordeals he was put through, or his most intimate memories of the girl Clementine.
This film is most certainly inventive, but it becomes endangered of relying too heavily on a concept or a gimmick in a way that gets in the way of the love story. Although that does happen at times, in general, Eternal Sunshine functions in great capacity. While being utterly original, it still manages to be anchored by the story of Joel and Clementine. That is due to the wonderfully restrained performance of Carrey paired with Winslet’s dyed-hair and unfettered turn as Clem.
Finally, the narrative folds over on itself again as Joel’s mind returns to the present — a present without any recollection of Clementine. They meet again and there’s a strange sensation in the air. It’s a true deja vu moment that has them befuddled and confused. Will they go through with their relationship even when they find out about their rocky history?
Perhaps the most troubling thing about Eternal Sunshine is that it feels liberating, but it’s liberation without the prospects of romance going anywhere. How do we know that Joel and Clem won’t fall into the same ruts they did before? However, maybe that’s exactly the point. Love often means taking risks and stepping out when it’s hard. The great unknown can be daunting, but without it, there could be no joy or hope in life, only mindless interactions with arbitrary meaning. Love is worth the risk for Joel and Clementine. It’s the same for most people. Therein lies the beauty behind it.