First off, if you haven’t seen this masterpiece, I highly recommend closing this browser and placing yourself in front of your nearest screen for the next hour and 45 minutes. I would also recommend a box of tissues as this movie carries a ton of emotional baggage. Written by Charlie Kaufman, the film stars Jim Carrey (at his absolute best) as Joel Barish and Kate Winslet (Clementine Kruczynski) on the final night of their relationship, as the two independently and boldly decide to erase their memories of one another. We are taken on a cinematic ride through all of Joel’s memories of Clementine as they are being deleted from his brain. However, during the procedure, Joel has a change of heart and tries to hide Clementine’s memory from deletion through various unrelated memories in his head. As the procedure comes to a conclusion and Joel understands that his attempts to save the memory of Clementine are lost, he surrenders to his panic and the inevitability of this loss by living in the moment of his very last memory with Clementine and simply enjoys what he will soon forget. However, when he awakes, he follows the advice his subconscious gave him in his dream and is introduced for a second time to Clementine on the beach where they first met.
The pair have an immediate connection, as their first encounter is unbeknownst to them, and again start the process of beginning a relationship when news of their previous procedure is leaked and they discover their rocky history. At the end, while conversing whether it would be wise to enter another relationship set to repeat history, Joel’s simple yet thoughtful response sets up a future they know will end, but are willing to experience once more.
There’s a lot to unpack here as is the Kaufman way. Kaufman has this uncanny ability to portray common emotional dilemmas in a complicated yet thought-provoking way. He truly makes you dig for the meaning behind his art. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s main themes tackle the heartbreak that comes at the end of any relationship and whether or not erasing the memories of a close companion is at all beneficial to one’s self. The movie borrows its name from a quote in an Alexander Pope poem:
“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 (1717)
In its context, the ‘blameless vestal’ refers to a celibate nun, sworn to silence and seclusion to the outside world. A pure soul uncorrupted by society, yet never allowed the true opportunity to live. In essence, it’s a fancy 18th century way of saying “ignorance is bliss”. How blissful life would be if you were to have zero experiences to compare life’s positive and negative experiences. But life is not meant to be easy. These experiences, whether they’re the happiest memories you have or the most depressing you reluctantly hold, are what makes us human. A life of ignorance, a spotless mind, may only be blissful as you have nothing positive nor negative to compare it to.
Joel does not immediately understand this fact. We watch Joel’s memories with Clementine unfold as he sleeps. These first memories of Clementine hold negative weight in Joel’s head as all the arguments and disconnections between the couple come to light. Clementine is far from a perfect person as we see her selfishness, anger, indecisiveness and irresponsibility tear Joel down. But as the procedure continues, the memories of Clementine and the moments shared together become increasingly positive and happier for Joel. He realizes in the midst of the irreversible operation that he doesn’t want to lose the happiest moments of his life even if shared with the one who broke his heart.
Without these positive memories, Joel would have quite literally nothing. If this theme of ‘eternal sunshine’ were true, Joel’s newly spotless mind would free his life of the burden a past love weighed on him and he could continue to live a blissful life. However. at the beginning of the movie as well as towards the end when his very last memory of Clementine is actively being erased, we see pre-Clementine Joel just as sad and anxious, if not more so, as he was the day he entered the Doctor’s office. With a “spotless mind” type of state without knowing Clementine existed, Joel was still just a sad, lost soul. Except here, Joel never knew that happiness Clementine brought him. He never had those experiences that allowed him to learn from or any memories to reflect on and reminisce about happier times. Having happy memories, even if they are distant, can serve to remind us in dark times that happiness does truly exists. A “spotful” mind may be difficult and painful, almost unbearably so, but it makes us human to feel these things. To hurt so badly over love means that love you held before was real.
Together with Joel, we as an audience discover that attaining a spotless mind may not be an appropriate stepping stone to moving on. Kaufman unloads what I believe to be the entire point of the film from here on out: relationships – whether romantic, friendly, family, workplace, etc. – are never permanent and will always come to an end. It is not in human nature to recognize relationships with anyone won’t last forever. The thought is sobering. No relationship can escape the unpredictable finite endings that life seems to randomly throw at you.
While this idea may seem a negative attitude towards an element of life so commonly viewed as positive and fulfilling, Kaufman beautifully emphasizes how important it is to understand this truth, not dwell on it. As Joel’s final memory of Clementine, which is of the first day they met, is being erased, he ultimately accepts that fighting the memory erasing procedure is futile. He recognizes that his memories, the last relic of the relationship he once had with Clementine, will too come to a close. And while he could continue to fight this hard truth, it doesn’t change its fact. So what is there to do but enjoy it? Enjoy the memories, those moments of happiness with someone where nothing else in the world seems to matters. Because they don’t last forever. And once they’re gone, all you will have to are those memories to look back on to borrow a sliver of happiness experienced in that moment. While it may hurt to remember better days, wouldn’t you rather have those memories, to know that happiness really exists out there, than nothing at all?
I believe Kaufman’s point here is that it is better to have loved than to have never loved at all and to enjoy every moment with someone while you can. Relationships, life even, must come to an end at one point or another. Rather than waste them away with attempts to salvage them or worrying when everything will fall apart, enjoy them for what they are. Enjoy the company, the mutual love, the laughs, the tears, the lessons learned, and the memories shared that will last you a lifetime. And in the end, even in eyes full of tears and a heart broken to pieces, if you would still choose to do it all over again, you know you did it right.