Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Reluctant Romance

Lacuna, the company that creates the existential crisis in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, advertises that they can put a gap in the manuscript of your life. If you want to forget a trauma, a beloved pet, or even a whole person, you can do it. Possible side effects include a kind of wistful longing, the feeling of being a stranger in your own life, having to choose between two paths you recognize but don't know. Patients may find themselves sitting in the crossroads wondering how they got there, living life like a dream they can’t remember, or someone else's grand adventure. Ideally, they won’t even want to.

We have real-life Lacunas that differ only by efficiency. A romcom in which two conflicted lovers try to forget each other using drugs would differ from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind only by effectiveness. Despite having all the technology in the world, in this movie, the best thing we can think to do with it is forget each other. Lacuna is the device that makes the film work not only because of its plot function but because it is never explained as a scientific contraption. It’s established and used as an emotional one. Eternal Sunshine becomes a universal truth of our triumphs, and our troubles, through a fantasy of technology that's so kooky it might as well be real.

Charlie Kaufman, whose screenplays supersede the directors that take them over, uses Shakespearean fantasy techniques – he imagines our dreams as opportunities to tell us about who we really are, or who we would be with enough power to act on our ambitions. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) doesn’t know why he ditched work for a trip to Montauk  – he is bedazzled with himself in that situation, secretly moved by some unknown spiritual desire to a place he recognizes but doesn’t know. He meets Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and gets swept up in her cheeky eyes and candid manhandling into a spontaneous relationship. For folks that have no more inkling of each other’s happiness than their own, the combination of Joel’s not knowing and Clementine’s sureness gives them the easy grace of old lovers. They live a whole life together in a moment.

So why doesn’t it work out between them? Is she too flighty? Is Joel too listless? They destruct over a difference of natures. Impulsive Clementine wants to wipe the trauma from her mental record, and not deal with the post-trauma. That’s where Lacuna comes in.

It’s Valentine’s Day, the busiest day for memory-wiping services according to Lacuna’s bouncy secretary, Mary Svevo (Kirsten Dunst). Clementine undergoes the procedure. Joel hates that she doesn’t recognize him. He agrees to reciprocate her impulse with the same memory wipe, to forget not only her but everything he ever thought of her, so that to him she will be worse than dead. She won’t even have a memorial in his mind; if she died after the procedure, she wouldn’t even live in his thoughts. Memory wipe technicians Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) arrive to collect the evidence of Clementine from Joel’s house like icky hybrids between babysitters and exterminators. They run computer simulations of his brain patterns as he feels a feeling for each of the objects that he associates with Clementine. They knock him unconscious, hook him up to a helmet as big as a colander (Calvin would have used it for brain augmentation) and run back the simulations to erase Clementine in reverse. But the process makes Joel realize he doesn't want to forget her.

These technicians, who swoop in and play with dreams like tech-fairies who do house calls, contrast Joel’s internal struggle with their ambivalence. They're a symptom of our disease of not feeling for each other anymore. What's Joel struggling with? When viewed from inside, as Eternal Sunshine makes him do, a psyche “cured” of its regret seems apocalyptic and hopeless and sterile (how much of your life do you have to remove, before nothing hurts you?). The dream janitors answer to Oberon himself: the grandiose mentor figure of Lacuna’s founder, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), whom they have to call in after Joel has second thoughts, internally, once he sees the dystopia of his world without the memory of Clementine.

In internal rebellion, Joel takes the memorial Clementine by the hand and makes off with her into the wilds of his subconscious. Kaufman writes this buddy romance with sinister paranoia; it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Gilliam’s Brazil. Kaufman grew a forest there for Joel to navigate, planted a Minotaur in his heart, fed his past back to him in haunting pieces of Joel’s eccentric anxieties. Michel Gondry sets it in motion by directing one of the best scripts this century with the easy grace of a person repeating a folktale. At no point does Eternal Sunshine have the self-importance of science fiction and that makes it important. It’s always about us.

The weirdness creates a romantic comedy in reverse. Rather than the love story being paced by love, the tropes are forgone, made eternal by loops in time, guided by a weirdo’s inner omniscience over the events of his life. The walls of Joel’s memories collapse and reform around his perception of them, as he relives his failed relationship with increasing fear that he’s unraveling the best parts of himself. Normal conversations turn to psychotic nightmares with skins of featureless faces, with rooms that become the dim fourth walls of unrelated ones that lead Joel into a new memory as onto a different soundstage. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras gets in close with a handheld camera and flashlight as Joel takes Clementine by the hand and tries to save her from erasure. It’s a road picture that occasionally becomes an exorcism, though the reverse is equally true. She may be his demon, but Joel is worried that he’ll miss being possessed.

The dream sequences give the film the opportunity to make Joel’s perception of his reality his literal reality. When he fears as a child fears, Carrey becomes four feet tall in a forced perspective kitchen like a nightmare of the 1960s, in a memory of his parent’s house. The whole world fades when he doesn’t know what to do, as though the universe loses object permanence when he does. Kaufman and Gondry achieve this perspective with humor, making even the real world seem like an illusion of realism. Where Aronofsky somehow made several timelines seem pointlessly brief in the disjunctive The Fountain, Kaufman takes only one and makes it a breathless eternity.

Normal romcoms put their lovers at a great physical distance, making their plight to see each other literal, their inevitable coming-together. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind knows the unsure hearts of people in love well enough to make nearness the greatest gulf they will ever cross. It is both the most romantic film of the 21st century as well as a mythologization of loneliness. It seems to say that the ultimate film about falling in love would have to also be, by nature, the ultimate breakup film.

Every performance operates on its intended level, each a foil to every other in one big romantic maze. Kaufman hooks emotional tail-ends to far-flung beginnings, anchoring the movement of Carrey and Winslet to their confused and conflicted “present day.” Carrey reminds us just how sad a clown can be, when his nose starts to droop. He turns his signature absurdism against an audience that expects it: he does so by withholding it, behind eyes fortressed by longing. Instead, he rides Winslet’s ambitious energy. Her fast-talking appraisal of anything she encounters pushes the boundaries of social decency in the real world, and the boundary between a film and its makers in Joel’s self-aware mental realms. Her nervous twinkling bounces off Carrey like a pinball. They’re the "opposites attract" adage in reverse, each playing who you might expect the other to. They compliment the paradoxes of each other.

I would say this pair should star in other romcoms, but Kaufman makes it seem like Eternal Sunshine counts as all of them. Dunst is underrated as the secretary with a boss fetish who ends up confronting the secret longing she's hidden from herself in her own life; in a way, as an outsider bound by the same pain yet unavailable for redemption, she is more desolated by these events than anyone. She's often the first face I think of, when I think of this movie.

The title comes from Alexander Pope, who wrote it on the innocence of the forgetful, and how we forget them. Kaufman’s romantic epic doesn’t take it lying down. As much as the elegiac Pope line is like a solemn oath to accepting how your life has turned out, his film is a wild rock anthem to the clawing internal struggle for relevance in one’s own existence. The film is a living testimony to what happens to love when it’s superseded by mortgage bills and seen through tired eyes and late-night arguments about nothing more important than your true nature. Those who once knew how to pronounce this kind of love, walk the streets at night wishing for a Lacuna, to forget what it ever sounded like. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is not a story about compatible lovers figuring it out but incompatible ones that can’t figure out why exactly they love each other to begin with.

If they ever did, I guess we wouldn’t need movies like Kaufman’s. If you don’t think we do anyway then I envy you: you’re already one of the eternal sunshine.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, February 16, 2018

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Focus Features

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