Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Analysis: Remembering Love
There’s a big misconception about romance in film. Many people see it as a limiting factor, or something that anchors the story to two people the audience may not like. In recent years, the romance genre has been saturated by a wash of generic light and colour that’s been dubbed the ‘Rom-com’. A hopelessly bland godless hellscape of film pumped out by Hollywood to play on people’s emotions, often stamped with Vince Vaughn’s face to make people feel like they are watching something other than a feature length hallmark commercial.
I say that love in film, while an overused or misunderstood trope, can be used tastefully and to great effect. Sometimes you will see a movie that just connects with you, it gets you and feels particularly relevant to where you are in life. A movie comes along and then after it ends it’s all you think about or a few days. It takes a certain type of film to do that, and for me it was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In over a decade since its release, I am yet to find many films that I connect with as much as I did with this film on my initial viewing.
But enough shit about me. Let’s talk about the movie.
Eternal Sunshine is written by Charlie Kaufamn and directed by Michel Gondry, two formidable creative talents who have since gone on to make some great work. Well… Maybe not Gondry.
Jim Carrey takes the leading role as Joel, a mild-mannered and shy man who is enduring a messy breakup with his ex, Clementine (Played by Kate Winslet). Joel discovers that, to cope with the relationship fallout, Clementine had Joel erased from her memory. In despair at the thought of this, Joel opts for the same procedure. Most of the movie takes place within Joel’s mind as the procedure goes on and he starts to regret all the things that led him to this moment.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a soulful movie, it’s a movie about a lot of personal things that we all can understand and relate to. The important thing I took away from it is that Eternal Sunshine is a movie about love — and it’s a movie that does it right.
The core message of the movie is that love is imperfect because we are imperfect. Love is a product of deeply damaged and flawed people. The movie teaches us that every relationship is in some way doomed. This is reinforced by the fact that every relationship we see in the film is an incomplete or unhappy one. We see Joel’s friends going through some very serious bumps in their marriage early on, indicating their relationship is hardly worth envying. Harold and his wife obviously don’t love one another anymore and Mary’s presence in Howard’s life is destructive for his family. Patrick builds his relationship with Clem on dishonesty and really doesn’t understand her at all. Stan and Mary seems to be built on the same dishonesty as Patrick. Finally we have Joel and Clementine, who are so unhappy with eachother that they actually go and erase eachother from their memories. Jeez.
So we’ve established that relationships are doomed, right? That they aren’t worth the hassle? Well it’s not so simple. To understand this further, I’m going to talk a bit about the symbolism in the film as it helps illustrates the points I think the movie raises.
Point one. The motif of water. Clem and Joel meet at the beach, they also meet at the same beach in the prologue. Rain pours in Joel’s apartment, Joel is bathed in the sink, he appears underwater in several sequences, water floods the beach house at the end of the movie. There is also several allusions to drowning made throughout the film. What does this mean? No idea. No really, I don’t. My best guess would be something to do with how Joel processes emotions. He lets it get on-top of him, makes him feel like he’s drowning in them. That’s something we can all relate to I guess.
Point two. Quotes. There is a reoccurring use of quotes in this film, the two most quoted are from Nietzsche and Alexander Pope.
“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“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?” — Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard
Both of these quotes are fancy ways of saying that ‘ignorance is bliss’ and sometimes the best thing in the world is to not know things. In the context of the film, this can be seen as a justification for Lacuna Industries. The pain and heartbreak from relationships often makes life unbearable for people, Lacuna proposes a world where we forget our grief. In this sense, the film is asking us if we, the viewer, would ever have such a memory procedure.
Point three. Colour. The use of colour as a symbol is one of the oldest practises in film, it is a topic that deserves its own video and I’m sure I will talk more in-depth about it in the future. For now, let’s evaluate the most obvious expression of colour: Clementine’s hair. In the first conversation we see between Joel and Clem, she says her hair is an expression of who she is, and this is correct throughout the film. When Joel and Clementine break-up, her hair is a deep blue, the colour of sadness and isolation. When the two first meet, Clem’s hair is green, the colour of rebirth; signalling the rebirth of Joel’s love life after Naomi (and in the context of the mind sequence, rebirth of Joel and Clem’s love). In the final scenes between Joel and Clem, the blue in her hair is fading to her natural colour, signalling a new start as she and Joel get back together. What does this all mean? Fuck if I know. Maybe Clem just likes changing her hair colour.
Of course there’s other things we can talk about; like how Lacuna means ‘a gap’ or ‘void’. This void could be the mental hole left by the treatment or the spiritual hole left by relationship trauma. Lacuna itself, I think, is representative of our inability to process breakups, our need for a quick-fix to our problems. But the movie suggests that such a thing would stifle our growth as people and leave us unable to grieve over anything, which is a core part of being human.
Again, just speculating.
I could mention how in the final shots of Joel’s mind we see repeats of the colour red, that could symbolize his enduring love for Clem? We could even say how the last shot of the film repeats three times to show that we’re doomed to make the same mistakes? It’s what I love about the film, it could be interpreted in many ways. You come away from it feeling something that is unique to you.
So back to the original message: does the film praise or condemn the way we love? Well, neither. It tells us that love is messy and challenging and ends in awful ways — but at the same time it says that it’s meant to be that way. The film makes clear that love is a thing worth fighting for, a thing that is worth holding on to despite all the challenges and setbacks. And although the very nature of love is a doomed one, and we all have our ways to mess things up, Eternal Sunshine tells us to love regardless and learn to take the pain that comes with losing love.