Credit: Focus Features
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Michel Gondry

February 23, 2024

In the AI-drenched bizarro world that is 2024, the premise of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released 20 years ago this spring, seems almost ludicrously simple. We’re so used to being fed marketing doublespeak about improving and optimizing our future selves that the flip side — attempts to idealize our individual past — are hardly worth mentioning outside the context of a therapist’s couch. Eternal Sunshine brilliantly taps into the universal experience of wanting to take a giant rubber eraser to our cringiest memories, so that we may wake up the shiny, scrubbed, and, yes, spotless people we like to believe we are. But instead of branching across the metaverse or veering down alternate realities, Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman go in a refreshingly analog direction. Their plot is driven by the services of Lacuna, Inc., a storefront medical clinic with the ability to erase people’s memories by way of EKG hookups, ’80s-era computers, and metal headpieces that resemble giant colanders. 

Kaufman is no stranger to self-reflexive rabbit holes, but Eternal Sunshine complicates the premise he so effectively explored in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich by hinging on the volatile emotional states of two very different people: Joel (Jim Carrey), a neurotic, nebbish everyman, and his impulsive, slightly manic girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). When their turbulent two-year relationship falls apart, rather than end things properly, Clementine enlists Lacuna to wipe Joel from her memory. When he finds out, he does the same — only to realize, midway through the procedure, that he’s changed his mind; he would rather keep even his cruelest memories of her than none at all. Joel’s increasingly frantic attempts to preserve their time together leads them into the deepest recesses of his mind, where he and Clementine can finally have honest conversations they were too scared or repressed or ashamed to have face-to-face. 

In portraying two polar opposites who seemingly can’t help but fall in love, Gondry and Kaufman create a slippery, cerebral, and deeply affecting sci-fi/rom-com mashup that unfolds across multiple timelines and ensnares not only its stars, but everyone in Lacuna’s orbit. By the time Joel and Clementine spend Valentine’s Day together in Montauk for what they think is the first time, their relationship has taken on the contours of the windswept beach they’re so inexplicably drawn to: at once familiar but unpredictable, comforting but uncanny. 

Despite Eternal Sunshine’s sci-fi underpinnings, the film is grounded in Joel and Clementine’s messy, toxic, and painfully believable relationship. The first time audiences meet them together, their dynamic is already evident. He’s sheepish and nervous, prone to overusing the word “nice” in a way that’s more insipid than inoffensive. Meanwhile, she’s self-deprecating and defensive, prone to springing verbal traps in between bursts of oversharing. Not only are Carrey and Winslet perfectly cast, but they’re also ingeniously cast against type. Carrey’s famously malleable face is frozen in a self-effacing grimace while Winslet, who at that point in her career was known for her work in lush period dramas, plays Clementine as a brash alcoholic whose technicolor hair changes as often as her moods. Gondry’s directing style, in which he mined Carrey’s real-life heartbreak but told Winslet the film was a comedy, only adds to the duo’s off-kilter interactions. As their relationship sours, this initial gulf becomes ever more treacherous to traverse. 

While the film’s moments of surrealist romance are rightly praised, Gondry is equally deft at capturing the quotidian nightmares people in unhappy relationships know all too well, whether it’s the recurring quicksand of having the same argument over and over or the resentful meals spent in silence, like members of the “dining dead.” Significantly, Joel and Clem aren’t kids (and by kids, I mean the 20-somethings in that other 2004 indie touchstone about a zany romance, Garden State.) As fully grown, if not exactly self-actualized, adults, they’re each a little too old to be so emotionally stunted. For this and many other reasons, theirs is not an easy relationship to watch unfold — which, of course, makes it all the more realistic. But does that make it doomed? 

For Lacuna’s receptionist, Mary Svevo (Kirsten Dunst), that question holds a particular resonance. Her schoolgirl crush on the company’s founder, Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), treads familiar waters, but the revelation of her own history with Lacuna’s services is both surprising and genuinely sad. Unlike Joel and Clem, whose romance is merely ill-advised, hers is genuinely unrequited. There is no medical recourse from yourself, and the loneliness of that realization is etched all over her face when she finally learns the truth. 

Like one of those origami fortune tellers that children make to predict the future, Gondry’s sci-fi leans old-school. Instead of plastering the screen with special effects, he relies on understated CGI and deceptively simple techniques like forced perspective and double exposure. This restraint allows Eternal Sunshine to flawlessly capture the mental hangover of waking up from an all-too-realistic but deeply unsettling dream. The film’s most striking scenes take place in various wobbly, wistful states deep inside Joel’s head, where his memories of Clementine degenerate almost as quickly as he can hustle her along to safety. As a last-ditch effort, they burrow ever deeper into his past, in the spots where Lacuna won’t think to look for them. These scenes, featuring a young Joel reliving his most embarrassing childhood memories while Clementine watches, are awkward and over-the-top, but still capture an almost indecent sense of vulnerability. To find that degree of intimacy with one person is rare. To find it twice must be fated — even if it’s with the same person.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon