Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind & the Complexity of Love

20 years later, this is still a damn good film.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I haven’t watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind since I got my heart broken. The last time was 11 years ago, after someone that I loved told me he thinks he might be in love with me, before he took those words back. He hadn’t meant them; he said them the way you sometimes say things on impulse, as a kind of lark, without any true purpose or meaning. The outcome was me not being able to watch this movie – which was a favourite for both of us – without feeling deeply sad, so I avoided it, for 11 years. It feels kind of cathartic to come back to it now with the passage of time, and appreciate it once again for the beautiful gem that it is.

Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) have the kind of fight that you know marks the end of relationships. He said some horrible things to her, she stormed out, and when he goes to make up with her, she looks at him like she doesn’t know who he is. Why does she act like she doesn’t know him, how is that even possible? Joel discovers that Clem had a procedure that erased him from her memories. He’s baffled at how she could do something like that, so he decides he’ll do the same. When he makes the decision, he’s in pain and hurting, but as the procedure brings him back to every single memory he has of Clem, the ramifications of his choice start to hit him. Because with every painful, bitter memory between them that gets erased, so do the good ones. He repents his decision, but there’s nothing he can do but bear witness to Clem disappearing from his mind.

One of the most powerful aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is how real their relationship feels. Some of the memories we get taken into are simple, mundane, but those are the moments that make up a relationship. And now, even those moments that we would look at as small or trivial, are stripped altogether from Joel’s mind. Mid-procedure, Joel changes his mind, but he can’t alert those performing the procedure about his change of heart, so he decides to hide Clem in some of his early memories. If she’s hidden, she can’t be erased, and he’ll get to still remember her in the morning. But of course this doesn’t work, and we trace their relationship all the way to its genesis. As he relives this memory, he wishes he could have been braver then, instead of bailing on Clem and walking away when he wanted to do the opposite.

That is the nature of life – a cumulation of things done and undone – and we carry all of this with us until the very end. Clem wanted to skip out on the pain that comes with mourning the loss of her relationship. It was easier not to deal with it, rather than deal with the pain of slowly getting over someone. Yet, through some crazy sense of fate, both Clem and Joel end up falling in love with each other all over again. We don’t realise that the first 18 minutes of the film are them meeting for the first time after getting their memories erased, so we assume it’s the first time, until the events play out and we realise from Clem’s hair that this is the present and not the past. As they deal with the glow of a new beginning, Kirsten Dunst’s character Mary sends them the tape and file of their records of the procedure, which leads to both of them learning that they had been in a relationship before, they just forgot.

Their individual tapes lay everything out in the open, all the negative things they perceived about each other, and the reasons that led to the relationship ending. Yet, despite knowing how everything collapses around them, and that the relationship they had before didn’t work, this doesn’t stop them from restarting things again. Why? Shouldn’t they avoid each other altogether if things are probably just going to end the same way? Well, no, because every relationship begins with a leap of faith, a pledge to love someone to the best of your ability, even if there’s an expiration date attached.

As humans, we’re so afraid of pain, of being hurt and dealing with loss. I was so afraid of feeling the pain of my memories that I avoided this movie for a whole decade. No one wants to bask in the open wound of a beating heart. But should we allow pain to determine how we love? The movie makes it clear that even when Clem is given the safer option, a yes man in Patrick (Elijah Wood) who would give in to her every whim, she doesn’t want that, she wants what she has with Joel. Real love is messy, boring, and it can sometimes take you outside your own sense of agency. But without it, we would lead spotless lives, and where’s the fun in that?

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