Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a story of the relationship between an introvert Joel Barish and the loquacious, quirky Clementine Kruczynski, is one of the most highly acclaimed and far-reaching films of its time. The film’s cyclical narrative structure is one of its chief highlights; an important point to consider while attempting to understand the film, because frankly, without it, one would be at a loss to fully understand the events as they unfold in the film.
The film begins on a cold February morning in New York State when Barish skips work to jump on an upstate Long Island Rail Road train to Montauk Beach. He meets a girl in a bright orange hoodie and blue hair at a café near the freezing beach. They begin conversing on the train back to their town, genuinely surprised at the fact that both are going to the same place. It doesn’t take long for them to become friendly and exchange phone numbers. Joel gives Clementine a ride back to her flat from the train station and she invites him in. He leaves to go home soon but calls her up and they end up going to a frozen lake for a night picnic – at least that’s what it appears to be – and lie on the frozen, icy lake to watch the constellations above. The plot begins to unravel when they both arrive outside Clementine’s flat the morning after their night picnic and she asks to go on to Joel’s place to sleep. While she goes inside to get a few necessities, a man knocks on car’s window to get Joel’s attention and then simply asks if he could help Joel with anything. Joel is, to put it simply, baffled, and the man leaves. The opening credits that follow this take the viewer back in the past in Joel’s life, which leaves the viewer perplexed.
Joel and Clementine had actually met and fallen in love two years ago (which would be 2002 according to the film’s timeline). But over that period, their relationship began to deteriorate. This is because both are opposing personalities; and worse, both hold different values and differ in their perception of the world and of life. In fact, as their fights begin to get more and more heated, topics like parenthood, family, commitment, whether Clementine has been out late at night, engaging in sexual activities, the lack of communication which has adversely affected their intimacy, according to Clementine, become the reasons for their fights. The same reasons also give rise to their general disappointment with each other and with their relationship. It is as if both expected certain things from each other and neither of them were able to live up to each other’s expectations, hence their disappointment with each other. It led to them hiring the Lacuna Inc., a firm that specialises in erasing traumatising memories of people and enables them to truly move on with their lives minus the usual trauma of getting on with life after losing a loved one, to erase their memories of each other, thereby ridding themselves of the burden that their relationship had become.
A better part of the film takes place inside Joel’s mind, as he sleeps and the Lacuna technicians erase his memories of the past two years and of Clementine. The Lacuna technicians, presumably for the first time in their entire careers with the firm, are faced with an unprecedented problem that, it seems, is an extremely serious problem for them. As they proceed with the expunging procedure, Joel begins to disappear off the map that was chalked up in order to keep track of those memories that were to be wiped out. This signifies that he is actually fighting against the procedure, fighting to protect his memories of Clementine and prevent his love for her from being removed from his memory. Clementine, the one he remembers, the one in his mind, also helps him to save the memories he has of their relationship. They soon end up in Joel’s childhood memories, where she should not have been present, just to be safe from the technicians entering that portion of his mental landscape. But they do not succeed and every memory is systematically eradicated from Joel’s mind.
The next morning, he wakes up, and the narrative returns to its beginning, but with a deeper insight into the characters and the events of the plot this time, as the viewer also sees what is happening in the lives of the Lacuna employees and their owner. This is an important part in the film because this is where Mary, the Lacuna receptionist, discovers that she also underwent the procedure in order to erase all recollection of her clandestine affair with her employer, Dr. Mierzwiack, as they had been discovered by his wife. The utter shock of this unexpected reminder propels her to violate her firm’s patient confidentiality regulations, dig up all patient records and mail them to all of their patients. This is how Joel and Clementine discover their forgotten past together, right after they had undergone the procedure, the morning after their night picnic and their newfound friendship. Both listen to each other’s tapes that contained their rants about each other, voicing their complete disappointment in each other. These moments are some of the most disturbing in this film, and by extension, in one’s entire film-viewing experience. The film then ends with Joel and Clementine apologising for their respective rants about each other. One could take that to mean that they are essentially apologising for having their memories of each other wiped.
The credit, firstly, goes entirely to the writer Charlie Kaufman for adeptly handling a tricky narrative technique and not compromise on the depth of his characters, the events and their significance. Michel Gondry, the director, perfectly understood every intricate detail of Kaufman’s script and made it come alive onscreen. He also must be credited with extracting such brilliant performances from his actors. Each of the protagonists, Jim Carrey as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski gave one of the best performances of their acting careers in Spotless Mind. Carrey’s portrayal of Joel comes across as a complete shocker, especially if one has naively typecasted him after having seeing his quirky, generally comic roles like the ones in The Mask and Liar Liar. Same goes for Winslet, who has also given numerous other excellent performances in her acting career. The supporting cast of Elijah Wood as Patrick, Mark Ruffalo as Stan, Kirsten Dunst as Mary and Tom Wilkinson as Dr. Howard Mierzwiack as the technicians and the head doctor, respectively, of Lacuna Inc. lived up to the demands of their respective roles and their significance to the script.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seems rather bewildering at first but it starts to make sense eventually, leaving one’s mind free to take its other details into account, without being encumbered by attempting to make sense of the fractured narrative, because it all adds up towards the end. It is highly recommended to everyone, especially to those who are looking for something different to watch, and those who are already fans of Kaufman, Gondry, Carrey, Winslet and the rest of the cast.