Today [Valentine's Day] is a holiday created by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.
So thinks Joel (Jim Carrey) in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If every holiday deserves its own film, and every generation deserves its own cinematic explication of each holiday, then surely the 2004 Charlie Kaufman-penned, Michel Gondry-helmed hip, mind-bending comedy-drama romance, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is this epoch's most articulate annotation on that mid-February fixture of romance, Valentine's Day. As Joel awakens on this ostensibly ordinarily dismal winter day, he laments his doleful station in life. He stands, shivering, on a train platform, and—out of nowhere—decides to run off, and ditch the dismal daily peregrination to his job. For no reason in particular he runs to another train—headed to Montauk. He is not sure why; he is not, as he assures the audience through voice-over, an impulsive person. When he finally arrives in Montauk he waltzes about the beach, glaring into the bracing wintry air. It is freezing, he notes to himself. Brilliant, Joel. Montauk in February.
Where Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind goes from there is as exciting as it is touching, with an exactitude of detail that is especially rewarding of repeated viewings—though Gondry's dexterous direction makes the details appear like a baseball in the eyes of an accomplished hitter seeing his ideal pitch: enormous. Why Joel takes his little trip to Montauk will be explained, quite late, and very movingly, but the gap between action and motive, deed and desire, is where the picture most robustly asserts itself. And that is most charmingly fitting; Eternal Sunshine is fundamentally about gaps, in time, and in space, and doubtless chiefly in the mind. Memory for a character is itself is to be assaulted, as it has so many ugly ornaments of nostalgia for the sweet times, loathing and regret for the bitter episodes. Joel does not know it, but he has slipped through the gauntlet of a passionate relationship wrecked on the reef of apparently irreconcilable differences. No longer embittered, he is merely empty; like a model airplane with only some parts adjoined, he is incomplete.
Lost love, largely of the acrimoniously-severed variety, engenders a spitefulness that exceeds vindictiveness. Resigned to their fate, most men simply scorn their fallen idol; once where the woman incomparably stood on a ponderously tall pedestal, she is viewed through the prism of unyielding revision. Unforgiving, the wake of an untethered bond leaves a sourness mainly mundane in its projection, deep in its currents. Cognitively dwelling on every last irritating shortcoming, annoying habit and asymmetrical peculiarity, the person whose flaws once seemed invisible now is ensconced not in blind adoration or even respect but seething, boiling hate. Popular music consecrates the impulse to turn what was, at a different time, deliriously fawned over into the bete noire. Listening to “Time is on My Side” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” the anonymous women are given identities by the audial recipient; countenances that were so long ago angelic, seen now as warped by the ravages of time and circumstance, flash by in a melancholic mental collage of heartbreaking ids. It is perhaps the most self-deluding, and hollowest of redemptions—to envision the pitiable parallel existence the anterior loves are suffering through, all in a reveling of self-importance as figure of sustenance. Inherently egotistic and jealous, the process supplies an embarrassing counterpoise to the wounded.
Kaufman's screenplay is animated in its substance by the nectarous short cut of erasing all sensitively distressed memories. The concept is an immediate hook—and demands an accomplished level of filmic execution worthy of its incorporation into a narrative. Joel discovers that his beloved girlfriend, Clementine (a sublime Kate Winslet), has, in one of her most impulsive moments, had him completely erased from her memory. Having supplied her with this accommodation is Lacuna, Inc., which has ingeniously taken its innocuous-sounding name from the Latin term for a hollow, cavity or dip—lacunae typically referring to a body of water such as a lake or pond—the aforementioned hollow or dip would be in the lake. In the context of the science-fiction project, however, Lacuna takes on the meaning of the lacunae infarct, referring to a brain-damaging stroke that discriminatingly assaults a specific part of the skull-encased muscle, resulting in the debilitation of specific functions or expunging of particular memories. When Carrey's Joel sensibly voices concern about brain damage being a side effect of the process, Tom Wilkinson's Dr. Howard Mierzwiak replies, “Well, technically, the procedure is brain damage.” Possibly also carrying with it the papryological meaning, Lacuna, Inc. may likewise refer to the lacuna as an aberrant gap in a text (here representative of Joel's brain).
Where Kaufman and Gondry succeed most brilliantly is in the implementation of their fable. Eschewing the comfortable familiarity of species—both comic and romantic—for a skittishly-paced exhuming of a contemporary love story. With the questionable Lacuna, Inc.'s vaunted procedure consuming the great amplitude of the film's narrative, Kaufman and Gondry tell a backwards boy-meets-girl tale. If Joel is crushed by Clementine's hegira from him to unknown pastures, then Eternal Sunshine's greatest conceit is to move past the amaroidal angst of an eroding relationship, back to happier times, culminating with their very first meet-cute—over some chicken at an otherwise forgettable beach party—which plays out romantically as the fearless Clementine tests the limits of the introverted and timid Joel. As he is asked by his married friends about the “pretty girl” he was spending time with at the party, he can only reply that she was “just a girl.”
At a time when most cinematic American love stories are prepackaged, preheated and pedestrian in their creeping confluence of cynicism and naivete—made into suppositiously mass-appealing pats on the back from filmmakers who confuse wholly legitimate sentiment with simplistic gratification—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stands out all the more. Joel and Clementine are as a couple, beyond convincing; in Kaufmanesque shorthand, Joel is another approximation of Kaufman's ineffectualness as a lover, and here the seemingly always weary Joel tirelessly scribbles down notes to himself but is withdrawn and unable to openly communicate, even with his lover. Clementine's recklessness of being could not be more antithetical to Joel's laconic shyness; as he ineptly struggles to say much of anything, she is brash and lacking in self-censorship. Suffering from an alcoholism that is only partly funny because it is so unfortunately true (authentic and believable), Clementine is Joel's counter and it is this apparent attitudinal and psychological gulf that both disturbs each member of the partnership and, bizarrely, makes their relationship work. The very problem is in its least troublesome vein a complementary personable dichotomy; where Clementine lacks introspection—which she chooses to stave off with alcohol—Joel is acutely self-aware to the point of self-destructively tethering himself to all of his idiosyncratic ways of questioning himself. In a plausible contemporary reversal of the action-minded man and the fence-straddling woman, Clementine's impulsive passion finds in Joel a stability that is both warm and in its quotidian application, smothering.
It is in the self-effacing, whirling pool of details, that Gondry and Kaufman wrap the seriocomic sentiment that leaves bruises of its own. In most romantic-comedies or variations of the template, the filmmakers are inclined to have their cake and eat it, too. Flaws of the characters are presented to make them nebulously human, all the while being played strictly for braying laughter. Eternal Sunshine does not expurgate the moments and traits that are all too familiar, yet usually skimmed over or entirely absent in most vaguely like-minded relationship films. Joel and Clementine's personal flaws are made humorous in the way that the flaws of a friend slowly become a source of amusement. Yet there is a deflating sadness to this pair that is uncommon; Joel is such an emotional weakling that sensitive men will find in him shared pangs—of regret, frequently stemming from absurd cowardice, of over-analysis of the self. Clementine is, to an indefinite degree, the young woman Joel at his angriest declares her to be—tempting in her penumbra of multi-colored-hair mysteriousness and affected, flirtatious unattainability, but stunted in her own development. Though the film, respectively written and directed by two men, makes Joel the hero, whose past is the film's focal point, Clementine's childhood and personal history would make for a potentially remarkable film. The fleeting visibility of a long-ago, nearly mortal wound is carried with her throughout, and is occasionally only held down from complete eruption by her dipsomania.
As if the Joel-Clementine heartache and humorously adorned pathos were not enough, Gondry and Kaufman pack in an entire subplot of hopes and hurts. With such an ostensible godsend as memory erasure, abuse is to follow like night after day. Lacuna, Inc. is itself a warped, closed-off tragicomic melodrama with a clandestine love triangle—two of whose members remain blithely unaware of its existence, though there is a knowingness to each beneath their rock 'n' roll, pot-induced haze of underwear bed dancing and sex. Elsewhere, an unethical young man has fallen for Clementine during her memory-pruning procedure and has stolen an unmentionable from her. Not stopping there he has taken all of Joel's items that he has given over to Lacuna, Inc.—items that would remind him of Clementine—for himself, with which he hopes to seduce the unsuspecting Clementine. When an indescribable sense of déjà vu intervenes for Clementine, she runs away from the cynical manipulator—who may serve as a potential stand-in for Hollywood persons who churn out the strikingly overly-familiar pills like briefly soothing narcotics working from prosaically similar frameworks.
One of the attributes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that cannot go unexamined is its pulsating, prevailing romanticism. Beneath all of the foreknowledge and soothsaying an obviously intelligent man like Kaufman brings with him, he allows himself, and Gondry allows the film, to be an avatar for unmitigated optimism. Despite having had their minds erased, Kirsten Dunst's Mary, Joel and Clementine all stumble, through an indefatigable sense of ceaseless yearning, for their (emotionally and cerebrally) lost loves. At a time when it is nauseatingly trendy to peer into complex matters that affect humans and their symbiotic relationships to one another in variegated contexts, Eternal Sunshine—not entirely unlike Being John Malkovich and Adaptation before it, and Synecdoche, New York after it—is serenely self-confident, enabling it to securely land on a jubilant restoration. It is in that reclamation, of memory, of love, of life—what would people be, by which means would they be informed without all of their memories?—that Eternal Sunshine terrifically realizes itself, all the while plaintively recognizing the inevitable potholes in the road along the way.
For the trajectory of hate and abyssal disappointment to be reached, love must have been an occupant for an extended period of time. It is through literally viewing Joel's own memories that he comes to terms with the exorbitant riches Clementine gifted him. It is not mere cliché to achieve, through storytelling, a character “becoming a better person”; comedy, as the flip side of the Grecian coin of tragedy, historically requires characters to learn—it is one of the most unquestioned features of tragedy that characters are doomed to not learn—and Eternal Sunshine allows Joel to learn an invaluable lesson. Alexander Pope's poem referenced is itself a contradictory extolling of the more modernist embrace of ignorance as bliss. In Eternal Sunshine, it is Clementine who, like Eve, first eats from the tree (this tree literally of ignorance), but Joel and Clementine each find themselves by the end and literally say, “Okay,” to their destiny, each other and themselves. If relationships are fundamentally mirrors into which one member sees the best—including the nonexistent best—of themselves in the other, Joel and Clementine at last allow the mirror reflection to not hurt them, and to be resigned to the imperfections they each possess. As his own mental collage of Clementine unspools backwards, Joel is left, like a beggar, pleading to “...keep just this one [memory]...” Down the rabbit hole it goes, and Joel is abandoned in his own mind until Clementine rescues him, and leads him, as she had before, to better times.