For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
Please be aware that my discussion of these films will contain spoilers.
TL;DR: No one knows how to categorize this movie. Consider that a compliment.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a plot that is easy to explain, and a tone that is not. Jim Carrey’s Joel is a mumblecore loner who wears lumpy earth-tone sweaters and apparently hasn’t written a journal entry in two years. Kate Winslet is the woman he meets while playing hooky from work, and it’s glaringly obvious that she’s his dream girl (She has a whimsical name! She changes her hair color! She’s frequently described as “impulsive”!) They hit it off immediately, despite their obvious differences, and go on a quirky date, despite the fact that they’ve never met before that morning.
Except they have met before, and that’s where things get a lot more interesting.
After their recent painful breakup, Clementine (WHIMSICAL NAME) hired a company named Lacuna to erase Joel from her memory. But this isn’t a sci-fi movie, at least not in the Total Recall sense. In retaliation, Joel tried to erase Clementine, only to realize halfway through the procedure that he still feels love for her and doesn’t want to forget her. But this also isn’t a romance, at least not in the “soulmates feel the pull of destiny” sense. And this definitely isn’t a comedy, no matter what the pull quote on the DVD box says.
So what is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
The film’s title comes from a 1717 Alexander Pope poem called “Eloisa to Abelard”, based on the medieval story of a talented woman who loved her teacher, lost him, and was banished to a nunnery that could not hide her from memory.
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
One brief scene puts us in the Lacuna waiting room, where customers huddle over the mementos of the loved ones they want to forget. A silently weeping woman with a box full of dog toys, a collar and leash. A middle-aged man with a trash bag, a sports trophy poking out the top – his child’s? Or his own past, ended long ago by injury or circumstance? They don’t speak, but their desperation is clear: forgetting is their path to happiness. Right?
While Joel is undergoing his memory-erasing procedure, Lacuna’s secretary, Mary, (Kirsten Dunst) confesses her crush on the head doctor (Tom Wilkinson). They kiss, they get caught by the doctor’s wife, they attempt to explain.
“Don’t be a monster, Howard,” the doctor’s wife says. “Tell the poor girl.”
So Mary learns that this is not the first time she has kissed Dr. Mierzwiak, and she may be the only one who doesn’t remember it. She hasn’t escaped her mistakes, only repeated them. She’s doubled her pain.
We go back to the beginning. Joel and Clementine meet, again. They learn of their past thanks to Mary, who has quit Lacuna and sent each patient copies of their file. They listen to the accusations they each recorded at the end of their relationship. Joel suggests that they try again, despite Clementine’s objections.
“I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you,” he insists.
“But you will!” she protests. “But you will. You know, you will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me.”
Joel shrugs and says, “Okay.”
“Okay,” Clementine repeats.
And then they start to laugh.
This is the hope of Eternal Sunshine: not the hope of soulmates or science to rescue or fix us, but the hope that we can accept and learn. Our bad memories are a part of us, for better or for worse. They are our hard-won self-knowledge, the eternal sunshine beneath which we grow. And maybe, given time and perspective, we can love them again.